Monday, January 1, 2018

Facing My PBL Fears

Here is a link to the background on the Immigration Statistics Project I am doing with my sheltered algebra class this year.

Note: at my school, Sheltered Algebra is a class for English Language Learners--students that are newcomers to the US that speak little to no English. It is a high school algebra class with intense language support for students that are learning to speak English. 

Since my class is for recent immigrants to the US that are not proficient in English, and since the topic of immigration has such a prominent place in the current national dialogue, it seemed like a natural fit to teach my stats unit via PBL with a focus on immigration statistics.

The driving question for the unit is: how can we use statistics and storytelling to help the public understand the impact of immigration on our country.

My Fear

I'll see my EL students in two days. I've spent a good part of my winter break (as well as a good chunk of summer break) preparing for this project--and I still don't feel ready. 

As I sat down this past week to do some intense lesson planning, I came to the realization that I am afraid to teach the stats unit this way. And I think the fact that I'm afraid is a good thing! My fear is a sign that I'm learning--I'm certainly not comfortable. I think back to the zones of comfort, risk and danger activity I do with my students first semester. I definitely feel like I'm in my risk (stretch) zone.
But what am I afraid of? Well, to be honest, I'm afraid of three things. 

  1. Teaching this unit as PBL is going to be too hard. Too hard for the students in terms of language--most of my students speak little to no English and there is so much open-ended, ambiguous language when looking at "real life" immigration data. (for example, what is an immigrant? A foreign born work here on a visa? A foreign born worker here on an expired visa? Someone that crossed the border illegally? A naturalized citizen born in Central America? Turns out, depends on which graph you are looking at!) And teaching this unit as PBL is potentially too hard for me since I'm teaching stats using PBL (almost) on my own and for the first time. 
  2. I'm also afraid the topic of immigration is going to be difficult or emotional or overwhelming for my students. This is probably the least of my fears, but it's still on my mind. I've been thinking a lot about Paulo Freire. This quote below in particular sums up how I feel about this. I just need to get over the initial shock of teaching something real-life, messy, emotional, and controversial like immigration in my math class!
  3. I'm afraid of what other teachers in my department will think in terms of rigor (yes, the dreaded r-word). Admittedly, I'm cutting "content" from this unit because I need more time for language production. So I might not get to IQR of box plots. And I might not teach how to interpret correlation coefficient for a scatterplot. But students will be able read graphs. And I believe they will have the tools they need to self-inform, reflect, revise and understand some of the information and narratives they are exposed to in the media regarding immigration (or any topic for that matter). And that feels more important than teaching how to compute IQR. 
However, while I think it is important to acknowledge, understand and reflect on my fears around this project, I'm not going to let my fears stop me. Rather, I'm looking at what makes me afraid and using that to inform my planning for this unit.

For fear #1 from above, I'm going to do a lot of intense, repetitive language production. Yes, that is going to slow me down, but it will also increase access and understanding. I'd rather have the students authentically understand some, than be exposed to a lot that they ultimately won't remember. I'll definitely be posting on my language production activities successes and failures. I already have a few posts on language production activities

For fear #2, I've been talking to an AVID teacher at my school to get ideas on how to build in structured reflection/debrief time so students have a space to process the emotional, real-life nature of the topic. (all of my students are recent immigrants to the US)

For fear #3, well. I don't know. I've had two teachers I usually respect say some off-color remarks to me about this unit/project. 

One teacher said something to the effect of "we really need to teach the EL students how to make change and count money. That would be a great project for their class." I was confused by this. First, other countries use money. So it's not like a kid comes from Guatemala and all of a sudden there is this whole new paper-currency based system in the US that they have to learn for the first time. Second, this is an algebra class. The mainstream teachers don't teach students how to use money. Why should the math education of EL students be different. 

The other comment (from another teacher) was something like: "we really need to be teaching them (EL students) something they can use in college to get a good job". This was in reaction to me describing an activity I did on helping EL students to read the types of graphs used in the media that I don't explicitly teach them how to read. Apparently, this teacher thought that was not a good use of class time. 

I'm assuming best intentions and attributing these comments to me being overly excited about the project and explaining things in an unclear way. I know if these teachers knew more about the project and what I plan to do, they would be more supportive. Perhaps I'll invite them to the final day of the unit when students present their work and findings. 

As for fear #3, I've also found a few allies at my school. One math teacher, one science teacher (also doing PBL for the first time in Bio), and someone from the district. These allies have helped me so much over the past few months by listening to my fears, giving me feedback and positive guidance. 

I'm excited for this project; and I'm terrified. And both those feelings can coexist inside me. The key for me is to honor my feelings (especially fears), reflect on why I"m feeling afraid, and use that to inform my next steps. 

Lots more posts coming on this project as it unfolds over the next 7 weeks. We start the unit on Wednesday. And you can bet I won't be getting any sleep Tuesday night! 


  1. Re your 3rd fear: application is one of the 3 pillars of rigor (along with conceptual understanding and procedural fluency). If anything, having the projects in context increases the rigor. It also enables them to better grasp the concepts.

    Who cares what other people think... especially if they make comments like #1. As for the second teacher's comment: they probably mean well, but preparing students for college/careers is a secondary goal (though I might add that PBL probably does that better than any other). Math's real benefit is not job security, it's seeing the world through new eyes--which is exactly what your helping them do. Here's to doing the right thing regardless of whether or not it's popular!! Real-life hero's are never 'ready'. Good luck!

    P.S. Maybe its an opportunity to inform the teachers as well. Change had to happen on all fronts if we want it to have any impact.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and encouragement!


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