I’m still relatively new at the teaching gig. I’m a former Peace Corps Volunteer, turned teacher after a wonderful two years of being a Community Health Volunteer who also taught math and science in a rural elementary school in the foothills of the Andes mountains. I was doing Project Based Learning without even knowing that was a thing. I showed up in my town and realized that most of the kids still struggled with basic addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts and skills and I needed a way to convince them that summer school was going to be fun. I was new in town and needed to get the kids on my side, and I needed to do it fast.
Project One: Basic Money Management:
How do you trick kids into practicing addition and subtraction? Get them to play a home-made version of Monopoly. We discovered very quickly that the American standard subtraction algorithm was definitely NOT how they did things in Peru, and my Spanish stills at the time were still not up for a 4th grader’s description of their algorithm. I also had tremendous trouble saying ‘subtraction’ as a verb in Spanish…but I had a firm grasp on the word for ‘addition.’ So I thought back to my days of working at the Catering Company/Restaurant and my first time giving change. I was so nervous, our cash machine didn’t have a computer and when a customer handed me a $20 for an order that was $11.27 I remember adding 3 pennies, then 2 dimes, then 2 quarters, and finally $8. Subtraction, via addition. So with our newly learned subtraction method, we got to playing.
Project Two: Improving Family Nutrition
I was also working with a mother’s group around the same time that I was teaching summer school. The average level of education for a mother in my town was 4th grade of elementary school, in my mother’s group most of them had stopped attending school by their 1st year of secondary school (the equivalent of 6th grade in America). So when I started discussing plant spacings, the area we would need to clear at the health post, and calculations for the amount of plastic fertilizer bags we’d need to find to fence in the area the mother’s were lost in the calculations. I wound up bringing in their children to give a lesson on how to calculate area and perimeter of squares, rectangles, and circles so that we could design a garden plan that fit their needs.
Project Three: Carnival Multiplication Tables
Carnival is a pretty big deal in Peru. The act of simply walking down the street would end in having a bucket of water tossed on you when you rounded a corner. The kids especially enjoyed tossing water on their friends, family, and neighbors. Carnival falls during the hottest months in Peru, right when a bucket full of water really, REALLY, feels good when living somewhere with limited electricity (and therefore no AC). So with all the fun to be had in the streets, it was getting to be a struggle to convince my kids to continue to come to summer school. So I had an idea. I had seen little water guns at the market and thought of a Carnival inspired multiplication game. I wrote with chalk random numbers from 0-20 on a cement wall by the health post and gather my kiddos, the water guns, and our newly created Carnival Masks, to have a water-gun-show-down. Students would stand 4 feet away from the wall in pairs and each get to make one squirt. They would then race to see who could solve the multiplication problem first.
It was in Peru, and largely due to the above projects, that I decided to become a teacher. I applied to Duke’s MAT program, got in, and was placed at a New Tech School in my home town where I had the good fortune to carry out my student teaching internship with a 7 year Project Based Learning veteran teacher. My first day on the job Michael sat me down and told me I would come up with the framework for a project before I left for the day. My jaw almost hit the floor because I didn’t even know where to begin. He then proceeded to tell me that he had to run to a staff meeting, but that the project needed to cover Linear Functions and the standards list was on his desk. I asked him if he had any advice, and he said, “well, I have found that I’ve usually used algebra 1 within the past 2 weeks in my daily life. Just think about something you’ve done recently that you could have used Linear Equations for, and go from there.”
The door shut. I stared at my computer screen, second guessing this whole teaching decision. I’ll admit it, I checked Facebook, looked at my Google New Reader, looked out the window, and did everything else a modern-day computer owner does while procrastinating/stalling for “the perfect idea” to come to them. I must have thought “I haven’t used Algebra since I took Algebra” at least once, and then got up and picked up the standards:
Students will be able to graph linear functions.
Students will be able to calculate slopes of linear functions (graphically and algebraically).
Students will be able to solve linear equations.
Students will be able to find the equation of a line when given a slope and a point on the line.
Students will be able to find the equation of a line when given two points.
Students will be able to model a real world situation using linear functions.
I’m not sure where it came from, but I remembered sitting down sometime the week before and looking over my budget. During student teaching the school system paid us $1000 a month, and I had to make sure that there was food in the fridge (because food is a very important part of my life). So I had made a list of the things that I needed to pay for: my phone, my rent, food, and so on. Hmm, those all need to be paid for each month…each month…rate of change…slope! And there we had the start of my first Project Based Learning assignment: The Game of Life. Now it was by no means an overwhelming success. There were HUGE things that needed to be reworked and rethunk for the next go round. But the idea was solid: Students would research a job, determine a starting salary, find a car from the Consumer Reports Car book, look up a leasing option for their car, find an apartment, and budget for food and other monthly expenditures. They then had to model their monthly budget and savings account with linear functions.
They were engaged, they loved it, and I learned how to have group work and small group remediation on a topic happen in a small classroom simultaneously. I was hooked on the idea of Problem and Project Based learning. I’m still trying to figure out how to make it work for me. My first year as a teacher I was still at the New Tech school, and still used the NT PrBL and PBL format. But the next year I moved to a more traditional high school, and did fall into a direct instruction, problem/lab, project routine. A few years later and I’m now still searching for the perfect balance of Problems, Projects, and Direct Instruction…or what ever else might be out there.