Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Classrooms

I have been feeling quite unbalanced for the last few weeks because my math and science classes have been so diametrically opposite.
The mid-year assessment window in my district is coming to a close and my math students have faced a battery of assessments. During the last two weeks they have taken end of unit tests, NWEA online tests,  mid-year tests, basic fact tests and the Orleans-Hanna algebra prognosis test. The classroom has been filled with silence broken only by coughing, sneezing, sighing, pencil pushing and head scratching. The usual fun banter has been banished, collaboration has been banned, engaging debate driven out, and I have been…bored! My role has been that of a spectator, watching from the sidelines. I’ve been watching the introverts happily and quietly calculating away to their hearts content, watching the extroverts struggling to contain themselves, watching kids become agitated, frustrated, anxious, weary, sick. It’s such an alien environment and I’m eager to get back into the mathematical fray.
In stark contrast my science classes have been fun filled and high energy. We have been participating in the Gravity Cruiser Challenge from the award winning A World in Motion Program. Working in collaborative teams of three, the students have been designing and constructing a vehicle that is powered by gravity. The basic model is comprised of a weighted lever, connected to an axle by string, which rotates on its fulcrum; as the weight descends it causes the axle attached to the string to rotate, propelling the cruiser forward. Once the students have the basic model they play around with variables to make the cruiser travel as far as possible. Concepts explored include potential and kinetic energy, friction, inertia, momentum, diameter, circumference, measurement, and graphing.
It’s been exciting to watch the kids struggle with this challenge, posing theories, testing hypotheses, thinking outside the box. Science, technology, engineering and math have burst into life as my kids are crawling on the floor, under tables, over tables, up the hallway, down the hallway trying to outdo their personal best distance. We’ve also been fortunate to have visiting experts join us to share their wisdom. Relatives with engineering experience have spent their afternoons with us, getting down on their knees and offering help with the process. It’s been wonderful to team teach with dads, uncles, and cousins and watch them struggle to maintain a supporting role and not just tell the kids how to solve the problem. One parent went home and built his very own cruiser which he eagerly shared with the class, demonstrating beautifully how engineers love the challenge of solving a problem. The conversation and learning that is taking place is exhilarating.
Tomorrow all 220 fifth and sixth grade students will celebrate Valentine’s Day with a cruise off! All the gravity cruisers will be put to the test to find the winning design and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate not only the holiday, but also the end of the testing window and the wonderful learning that takes place when the whole community comes together to work and explore together.

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