High school rehumanizing mathematics project, Take 1

I’ve been teaching a credit recovery high school geometry course for the past three summers. This summer, the program was offered virtually, with half as much in-class time as we’ve had in the past (appropriately so). After hearing from so many students that they were in summer school with us because a) they didn’t turn in homework, and/or b) distance learning in the Spring just didn’t work for them, I decided to abandon what is usually the final project and devised this one.

A screenshot of the student-facing project page.

Here is the full student-facing file of the project.

The goal was to have students engage in the unpacking and dismantling of a feature of a traditional mathematics classroom, and redesign that feature. They would then make a presentation (essay, Google Slides, video, podcast, etc) to share their redesigned vision.

Supporting Students

I broke the project down into components based on what I guessed students could get done each day. I included a rubric that functioned more like a checklist (I’m aware of the oppressive nature of rubrics, and the program I worked for required that all of us submit our projects along with rubrics, and mine is not very rubric-ky, and I do believe that checklists / clear expectations help students who have organizational challenges take bite sized chunks out of a daunting task like a project like this.)

I also prepared a sample presentation so that students who had difficulty starting could get a sense of what the final project would look like. Some students made a copy of this sample presentation and just erased all my content off the slides and filled them in with their own. Others built their own presentations from scratch.

A screenshot of the sample presentation I made.

Every day that we worked on the project in class, I opened by showing the slides from my sample presentation of that day’s project objective. I then sent the teams into their breakout rooms and circulated. Because each team shared me on the documents they had been working on, I had each of them open on a separate tab on my computer and could quickly figure out which breakout room to jump into to help give a hint / move students along.

I also created a spreadsheet checklist which I populated each day with the to-dos for that day. Each team got their own tab and were encouraged to check things off of their checklist as they completed each segment. Some teams I ended up doing the checklist with them, while others used the checklist to move forward without having to wait for me to give further instructions. The goal was to keep giving feedback until all teams got a perfect score on every point on the rubric (in reality, I ran out of time, because I did not want students to have to work on this project outside of class).

A screenshot of the spreadsheet checklist.

The final project work day was explicitly designated for presentation rehearsal. Three of the five teams actually had completed projects by halfway through the class, so I could jump in to help them start to practice their presentation, and then leave and help the last two teams who had not yet finished their slides. During rehearsal, students were asked to decide who would share the screen, and to put the names of the person who would be sharing each slide in the Speakers’ Notes. I also explicitly pointed out that rehearsal was the time to decide which sentences from the slides would be read out loud, and what extra information the speaker for that slide would be saying that is not explicitly on the slide (instead of just “don’t read off the slides.”). On presentation day, I think the rehearsals made a huge difference.

Finally, I invited caregivers/families to the final day’s class. I had been corresponding with them all five weeks of the summer course, and re-sent the link to our class to them in a reminder email for them to join us. I actually got a few caregivers to join us (and one who told me later that their child asked them not to join!). It was even possible for a caregiver who was at work to hop onto our Zoom call for a few minutes to watch their child’s presentation.

Opportunities for Improvement

I had hoped that students would get really creative with the redesigning of the classroom attribute that they chose, but I do not think I left nearly enough time for this, nor did I really model this. One of the unpublished takeaways I had hoped that students would learn is that it’s really hard to get your audience (say, teachers) to change how they run their classroom if you don’t explicitly present them with a better alternative. This was why the redesign portion was so important to me, but it got lost in the shuffle and rush of finishing presentations within the limited time we had in class. Also, since I had not planned for this project at the start of the summer, I had done little to support what redesigning to effect change looks like.

The fourth bullet point in the published objectives (“Demonstrate mastery of a piece of geometry content from this summer / previous school year”) also got overlooked completely. We had spent the weeks leading up to this project talking about dilations, proportions, and scaling, and used proportions to find racially problematic policies, such as discipline and AP enrollment, at our school. So while I did try to give lip service to any semblance of “geometry content” in the traditional sense in the project description, my not choosing to allot significant time to it during the project work days meant that it did not appear in the final projects.

Student Takeaways

  • Students were glad they did not have to take a test or a final exam or anything like that to pass summer school.
  • Students got to tell their stories and openly question how a mathematics classroom ran, and “get credit” for questioning that attribute, rather than allow that attribute “take credit” away from them.
  • All three groups that chose “homework” as their attribute to dismantle spent a considerable time outside of class voluntarily working on their project. I pointed this out to them as a question on their final presentation day as a curiosity.
  • Students were opened up to the wealth of literature on the internet that also questioned the same things they had called into question.

At the time of writing this post, I’m not sure I would give this project again to high school students. Maybe if I taught a Math Methods course to pre-service teachers, this would be more appropriate. I have a hard time resolving whether this project was more for me, or for them. I tried to make a project that was centered on them and their narratives, but dismantling the math classroom is really something I’m passionate about. I would like for my summer school students to feel empowered to write to their teachers with the evidence they’ve compiled as a start to challenging the system that we all work and learn in, but I also am not as hopeful that many of my colleagues are ready to listen.

Published by Xi Yu

Twitter: @xyu119

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