Flower Math:  Data Collection & Analysis

flower math action.jpg

Sometimes the best lessons happen out of necessity and luck, rather than a result of extensive planning or fancy materials.  Today’s blog post describes one such lesson that I had the good fortune of team teaching just a few weeks ago.  

Students in an Algebra I class had taken the end-of-year standardized test for the state of Virginia and had not passed.  Thus, they were placed into intensive “remediation” to prepare them for the retesting, which would happen a week or so later.  Because of an unfavorable ratio between number of students that needed remediation to number of teachers available to conduct that remediation, I ended up, rather last minute, having to “fill in”.  Thus, improvisational teaching took place.  

Don’t get me wrong, as an instructional math coach I’m called on to employ improvisational teaching fairly often, as rarely is the teacher’s absence a planned one that would allow me to do the preparation I’m accustomed to as the primary teacher.  I’ve managed to let go of some of my perfectionist tendencies and my need for control over the years, so this experience has not been as hard for me as it once would have been.

So, back to my story.  I arrived at the high school to learn that the classroom teacher for this particular Algebra I class was absent so, to handle the remediation process, his class had been divided by gender with another teacher taking the boys and the department head taking the girls.  Did I mention that this was the day before their re-take and the administration had decided to alter the schedule for these 20-some students to allow them to “have math all day”.  Yes, you read that right. Stop and contemplate for a moment trying to fill a 7-hour day with nothing but valuable mathematical experiences that will allow largely burnt-out students (and teachers!) to succeed on a test the very next day.  

"This is your mission."

As you can imagine, it was a daunting task.  I joined the department head with the girls class and we tag-teamed most of the day.  We employed all the tools of the trade we could with no real planning or materials collected beforehand:  group discussion, partner work, friendly competition to complete practice problems first up at the board, food rewards, and so on.  For the most part, it was pretty successful, but, after lunch, we all hit the wall.  The students were restless, losing focus, and getting impatient.  We (the teachers) were feeling the drain of trying to maintain sustained energy in a classroom for that long a period of time.  Then, *cue the angels singing*, we looked out the window and saw this:


Well, (full disclosure), not exactly that, that's a stock photo because, in the moment, I didn't think to snap a pic of the courtyard itself.  However, it's pretty darn close.  It was a mini field of wild growth:  the grass had not yet been cut and the dandelions, clover, and various other weeds had been growing wild thanks to the abundance of sun and rain.

Anyway, we saw this field and had a lightbulb moment for a mini activity to get the students outside, active, and achieve the rest of the goals on the list which included statistics standards involving measures of center and spread, box plots, and data analysis.  Quickly we had a mini meeting and decided upon some basic structures to the idea and agreed that I would lead the activity part outside, then bring them back in the classroom and we'd jointly lead the math discussion afterwards.

Armed with only my phone and a timer app, I instructed the girls to take pencil and paper and join me outside.  Then, I told them their challenge was to collect as many dandelions (or, as they referred to them, "the yellow flowers") as they could in a specific amount of time.  I told them they'd get two trials, one of 1 minute and the other of 2 minutes, in order to collect the largest number of flowers they could.  

Honestly, after seeing the lack of energy demonstrated most of the day with this group of students, I didn't really have high expectations.  However, as a good teacher will often do, I didn't let on and acted as if I thought they would think this was the BEST THING EVER!  Shockingly, it was!  They sprinted (SPRINTED!) to areas of the field where the flowers seemed densest (yes! problem solving in action people!) and were crouched and ready to pick even as I was activating the app.  The level of competition for what I'd thought was a rather mundane thing (really?  pick the most flowers?) amazed me utterly.  They were SO into this.  In fact, by the second trial, we'd gotten the attention of half the school because almost all classroom windows looked out over this courtyard.  Apparently, a teacher in the middle of a field yelling "You've only got 40 seconds left... HURRY!" and a bunch of girls picking flowers like their lives depended on it was not a common occurrence.  I'm pretty sure we were the talk of the school if the number of students hanging out the window in rapt fascination was any indication.  I know I was stopped in the hallway for days afterwards by random students asking, "Weren't you the one with the flowers?  What were you guys doing anyway?"

When time was called, they were instructed to bring their bounty and carefully count (no cheating!).  The picture heading this blog was one such action shot that I had the good sense to snap with my phone because, as I watched, I realized this was the picture of student engagement.  After counting, they recorded their results in a mini table indicating flower type and which trial it was.  We ended up doing both dandelions and clover (aka "the white flower"), with two trials for each flower type.  It was interesting to overhear their strategies between the one minute and the two minute trials and also between the two types of flowers (the dandelions were much taller so debates raged over standing versus hands & knees approaches to the problem). It was also interesting to hear them define the problem for themselves (debates included whether it "counted" if someone had picked a bud rather than a full flower -- it didn't).  Another thing that fascinating me was the "other" discussions that resulted from this activity.  These included an observation about how hard it would be to have to work in a field all day (quite a revelation for inner city kids), discussions about pollen and various biology topics pertaining to the flowers themselves, and extensions into estimation and number sense (trying to figure out how many flowers were in the whole courtyard).  It was amazing.

It bears repeating how many things about this simple activity amazed me.  The laughter, shouting, running, smack-talking, and challenging was abundant.  The complete focused engagement was profound.  The amount of energy all geared toward a simple task was unbelievable.  Then, even more miraculously, they WANTED to know what we were going to do with this data. They posed their own questions and they ASKED to go back into the classrooms because they WANTED to put the whole class data together and see what it told them.  Amazing!

Here is a picture I snapped of the whiteboard with partial data collected (again, I wasn't thinking blog entry while I was in the moment, so I didn't quite take all the pictures I would have had I been that aware):

flower math data.jpg

We spent the rest of the afternoon analyzing the data and, because it was real to them (they saw and felt and smelled those flowers with every number they wrote down), they were engaged the entire class.  I'm also happy to report that, in the data analysis of their SOL tests, every one of those girls got the questions from that particular standard correct.  Sweet!

In fact, at the end of the day, I received the biggest compliment I believe I've ever gotten.  One of the girls, I'll call her "Daisy", truthfully, a bit of a "problem child" who'd spent most of the school year challenging authority and avoiding learning, looked at me and we had the following dialog:

Daisy: You know, you should be a teacher, you're really good at it. 

Me: *laughing* Well, I have been a teacher for a long time so that's good to hear.

Daisy:  When they told me I was going to have math all day today I thought it was going to suck so much.

Me: And?

Daisy:  It didn't.  I actually had fun.  In fact, I wasn't bored at all AND I even know how to do box plots now! 

And then she told me, "Thank you for teaching me today." Wow. 

For those of you with inquiring minds, yes, she passed her Algebra SOL the next day, as did 80% of the students in our little group.

ah, yes, take a deep breath.  Smell that?  It's the scent of flowers and success. Sweet, isn't it?

As always, I'd love to hear from you.  


The link for the dandelion field stock photo used above.

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The Solver Blog

Author:  Dr. Diana S. Perdue

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