I wrote this note in response to a parent email communicating their student’s struggle with word problems that I offered to the class from the SpaceMath website.
“Thank you for articulating what has been growing in my mind for the past several weeks. I’ve been struggling to find that “sweet spot” between challenge and boring and I’ve come to the conclusion that this program needs more work before I roll it out as an integrated element of my math curriculum. I am convinced that using live scientific data as a platform for exploring math concepts (no pun intended) is a valid strategy, especially in light of the orientation of the Common Core to numeracy and problem solving.
I think that offering SpaceMath as Extra Credit, or “accelerated” math is the way to test these out and build a portfolio of problems that can be calibrated for the reading and math level of the class. Your feedback is welcomed; one of the great things about a charter is that we can probe the edges of the envelope and rework our lessons when they’re not getting us to our math teaching goals.”
Two things are happening here: 1) I have offered curriculum content that uses real-world data and requires that students use higher-order thinking to apply their learning. The boundary up at the edges of learning is much like the upper atmosphere: fluid and tenuous. Offering a single problem (each week) that dances that fine edge for fifty different students demands a large inventory of problems. I don’t have that right now, but I will by next year. 2) The charter teaching environment, coupled with a progressive management, allows for this kind of experimentation. Not a wild shot from the hip, but a thoughtful, reasoned program with a goal, quantitative measures, and a timeline. The open communications channel with parents (clients) for feedback gives me real time information on how the program is working.
The change in program was well received by my students. I positioned it as a no-risk option: no penalty for not doing it; anything less than a “3” would not be graded; and I will offer a SpaceMath “clinic” every Wednesday. Challenge and reward for those who want it, no guilt for those who don’t.
By the way: please visit the SpaceMath website and download their excellent math problems and activities based on NASA missions and programs. Dr. Sten Odenwald has created a huge portfolio of challenging problems arranged by topic and grade level. The site is easy to search, the content is rigorous, and Dr. Odenwald is very responsive to fellow educators.