Tuesday, October 10, 2017

It's the Climb

I want to credit my colleague, Madison Miller @mathemadison , for creating the original task! Also thanks to my colleague Kristel Chew for helping format the task and for adding the debrief.

I've been attempting to implement tasks that use complex instruction (CI) into my teaching practice. And Madison's task seemed perfect for a CI makeover.

An important part of CI are group-worthy tasks. Group-worthy tasks require students to use higher-ordering thinking and engage students in non-routine mathematics, which creates a need for students to negotiate meaning with each other to complete the task.

Madison's task definitely had all of that going on!

Both the original and the complex instruction version of the task are linked in this post. For me, however, it is more than just the task. The participation structures I use are what make this task successful.

Supporting Students in Productive Struggle

I give groups about 40 minutes to complete the task. Then about 10 minutes to answer question 1 (minimum). If they can get further, that's great!

How do I get 9th graders to struggle productively for 40 minutes? After lunch. On a Tuesday in October. I use a lot of the ideas that were introduced to me by Laura Evans. Laura is an expert in CI and I was fortunate to attend a PD on CI facilitated by Laura. My big take away from Laura's PD is that I have to create a culture that supports students as they engage in productive struggle. What norms or shared values do I think will help students engage in productive struggle during this task? And how do I develop and maintain a classroom culture of norms that support productive struggle? 

There are a few actions I can take to support a culture of productive struggle:
  • To develop the culture, I use a positive behavior stamp card. Laura calls them actionable norms. I liked Laura's phrases of "Communicate Productively" "Take Risks" and "Work Persistently" so I used those.  As I circulate as students work, I give stamps when I observe or hear students and/or groups displaying that falls into one of those categories. Then I give them a stamp and I say something like "I appreciate you taking a risk when you asked your team to slow down" or "Thank you for drawing a sketch of the graph for your team...you are helping the team to communicate productively". 
  • Being really specific about what a group role entails and making group roles meaningful help maintain the culture. 
  • To develop the culture, about 5 minutes into the task, I stop the entire class. I ask for pencils down and all eyes on me...my tone and body language communicate that this is an important message.  I publicly acknowledge (shoutout) specific students that had demonstrated the positive behaviors I had given stamps for. I try to be thoughtful in assigning competence and status to my students. If a student that struggles took a meaningful risk, I acknowledge that publically to the class. If a group worked persistently on a part of the problem, but hadn't found the answer, I would acknowledge that publicly. I do three or four shoutouts. 
  • To maintain the culture, I call the Stick Together Police from each team up to see me. We do a team huddle and I explain that it is now their job to do shoutouts for their team. They must keep working, but also listen and look for productive behaviors. I let them know that in about 5 minutes, I will be calling on them to give a shoutout to someone on their team to the class. 

These actions help me develop and maintain a culture of productive struggle. This allows the students to fully engage in the task. It also helps support equitable participation. Because students have a specific role as well as a clear idea of the things they should be saying and doing, it takes away some of the "noisy" cognitive demand of socially fitting in that teenagers feel. They know what things to say and do to receive praise and positive acknowledgement.  They don't have to think about it--I've made it clear.

Choosing Group Roles

I let students know what traits make a particular role successful. For example, the Justify Police should be confident in how to find slope. And the Coach should not be afraid to ask someone to participate (not a role for someone quiet). The Resource Manager might be good if you like to move around a lot or fidget. I give groups 1 minute to decide which team member is doing which role. For this task, I also share a few specific things about their role. I show the following slide:

Doing the Task

Finally, I introduce the task on a slide. I start with a notice/wonder slide:

Students notice and wonder all kinds of things! But the difference in steepness always comes up. And this is my goal. To start them thinking about steepness. I have them rephrase what "steepness" is to their partner. Then I intro the task on a slide:

I don't say much else. I don't tell them they need to use slope. I call resource managers over for a team huddle, give them the first task card, tell them to go back to their group and start an 8-minute timer, and that they should announce to their team that they have 8 minutes for this task card. If it takes more than 8 minutes, that is ok, but if it goes past 10 min, they need to call me over. 

Resource managers go back, and groups start to work. I circulate to give stamps and make note of names for my first round of class shoutouts. The first task card is the most difficult and also the steepest climber. I intentionally give "Monifa" as the first task card. If groups only get through two climbers, that is ok, they will still find the steepest. If they get through all four climbers, that is great also! This is another way I build equity into the participation structure.  Completing all the parts of the task isn't necessary to understand the learning objective of the task. 

If in 10 minutes groups still haven't finished the first task card, I call the Justify Police over for a team huddle and give them a hint: 

We go over how to find the dimensions of the slope triangle together. Then I send them back to their groups. Usually about 1 or 2 groups can't figure Monifa out on their own. 

Groups then work on Toshie (students have great discussions about this climber), then Hazel and finally Rolando. About 35 minutes into the task, I stop all groups. All groups will have completed at minimum two task cards and most groups will finish all four. 

I move all groups to the It's the Climb Original Record worksheet. I let them know they have 10 minutes to work and all groups need to complete at least the first question. It's funny...no group has ever made the connection that they've been working for 40 minutes without looking for an 'answer' until now (no one remembers they are looking for the steepest climb...they get so into finding the slope for each climber). 

At 10 minutes I stop all groups. I show this slide. 

Groups go up to the classroom whiteboards and record their work. I give them 5 minutes to put everything on the board. 

I had planned for groups to give warm/cool feedback to at least two other groups, but we didn't have time for that so I had to cut it (next year). 

As a class, we discuss one incorrect example and one correct example (of course, I don't say which is which until the very end) response. The main goal is to get students to use the sentence frame "as the horizontal distance increases by 1, the vertical distance increases by..." to help compare the slopes.

After this, there is an individual debrief at the end of the Record worksheet. Students do this individually (i ran out of time so cut this...next year). 

All together, I take 60 minutes to implement this task, but I could have used more time. We probably could have used 80 minutes to do everything I wanted to with the task.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post and your ideas. It sounds like you have set up a great classroom culture. I love the actions that you've suggested that you can do as a teacher to support this productive struggle, especially modeling the shout-outs, and then providing a structure for students to do the shout-outs themselves. This is really nice. It sounds like a really great PD session you attended!

    I like the roles you've set up as well, but I have a couple of comments. I've found that groups of 3 work better than groups of 4 for my students. Four together tends to make it easier for one to hide in plain site, even if they have a group role. I think that the responsibilities could be pretty easily combined for three. - resource manager and coach go together well, I think.

    My second comment is just about using "police" in the role names. This feels like police as enforcer rather than supporter. Maybe facilitator? Coordinator? Promoter? Designer? From your writing, I am confident that you are treating this role supportively, but I thought I'd share my reaction to the language.

  2. Thanks for commenting!

    I agree on the "police" in the role name...it's been in the back of my mind, but nice hearing it from someone else. I'll let you know what I come up with as a replacement!

    As for group size, I agree that it can be easier for a student to opt out in a group of three. I sometimes use groups of 3 and sometimes use groups of 4. But I think that's teacher/lesson/context dependent.

    thanks again!


  3. This is awesome! any thoughts on tasks for upper elementary?


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