As I began the 36-hour journey on the Puget Sound STEM Learning Tour with Washington STEM, I was incredibly anxious to observe classrooms and talk to students. Being a math teacher, it had been over two years since I’d done any similar observation experience. I was hoping this experience would continue my development of truly understanding the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the Standards of Mathematical Practices (SMP’s).
With each school I visited, I was continuously inspired by my interactions with teachers and students. Whenever possible, I focused on asking the students questions to understand their strategies, thoughts, and attitudes. Their inquisitive nature and rich conversations were incredible to listen to. My experience helped to deeply illuminate three SMP’s.
Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others:
As I toured Sherman Elementary in Tacoma, WA, I observed a fourth grade classroom, which earlier in the day had explored sustainable energy. In response, they were using the design process to create windmills without set instructions or visuals, leading each pair to have their own unique design. One group made a square base of popsicle sticks from which the windmill would stand. When I inquired about the reasoning behind the base shape, the students responded that the square would create the most stability when the windmill was hit with wind. Without a square base, they thought their windmill would tip over.
When each group tested their windmill, using the teacher’s hairdryer as the wind source, other groups eagerly awaited the result. Would the windmill spin or not? As students witnessed failed attempts, they would suggest design changes that would result in a successful windmill.
It was apparent that this class could create and carry out the design process while also suggesting improvements to their classmates after viewing their test runs. They were successfully creating arguments and critiquing their designs and the designs of others within a high interest application.
Model with mathematics
Walking into a third grade classroom at North Hills Elementary School, I was instantly struck by the students’ ability to have conversations around various mathematical models. Students were playing a game where they matched pictorial representations of fractions to other pictures or word forms of that fraction. While playing this game, students were continually pointing out to one another where and how the models did or did not connect. The level of conversation connected to the models was mature, respectful, and accurate. Modeling with mathematics helped the students to demonstrate their rich conceptual understanding of the definition of fractions.
Attend to precision
At West Hills STEM Academy in Bremerton, a group of eighth grade students were developing a new water system, using pipes and hoses, to install in an existing garden bed. Using large grid paper, groups created a plant layout design based on watering need. In addition, they determined the layout of the piping and how the piping would be installed. A fellow observer asked the teacher, “Will this work?” Shrugging her shoulders she said, “I don’t know. I guess we are all going to find out.” Their models had to be precise because they needed to be fully functional as they brought their plans to life. Using keys, precise dimensions, colors, labels, and a scale factor, the drawings depicted a layout with enough information to begin installing the system. Precision was absolutely necessary due to the real life application. This was not a throw-away paper. In order to bring this plan to life, the plan needed to be not only functional, but precise.
Walking away from the tour, I realized that the practices to be successful in mathematics are also the practices for which one needs to be successful in life. I witnessed first hand that the Common Core State Standards and Standards of Mathematical Practice are more than a set of goals; they are a prescription for life that encourages rich problem solving, a real-life connection, and perseverance as we think flexibly to tackle challenging questions. My students, and the students I observed, will end their formal educational experience some day, but the skills they are learning will form habits which will enable them to be highly successful community members, skilled workers, and engaged adults.