cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Oreos, Barbies, and Essential Questions: framing projects for differentiated learning

The Oreos lesson/unit has been going swimmingly. Students loved the project and the poster, though I'm feeling a little bored with my project ideas right now. Not every project culminates in making a poster. I have a bunch of other ideas I want to write about in another blog post, but that is not where I am headed in this post.

What I want to ponder is, I wonder if we have not been making our Essential Questions (EQs) in mathematics too small. Too narrow. Ever since my Global Math presentation (the one where I had the epic #micfail that left me playing Harpo to Daniel and Tina's Groucho and Chico), I have been thinking about Understanding by Design more and more, and that has led me to ask myself if I don't need to make my Essential Questions in math lessons a whole lot bigger and deeper. There are so many ways to bring the real world into my math classroom, and one of those ways is to frame our work using questions that adolescents are obsessed with thinking about in their everyday lives — questions such as, How dangerous is too dangerous? How do we define what is fair? truthful?

These EQs can form a frame around the activities we do to connect the mathematics to the real world around us. They help provide a situational motivation for learning — and for wallowing in — the mathematics that starts from a place where all students are naturally. And they also make the work we do more, well, essential.

Some of my "major" Oreo lesson EQs blossomed into, Are Nabisco's claims about their Double Stuf Oreo products fair? Are they truthful? just? And my "minor" EQs started revolving around, How can systems of linear equations in two variables help us to model and assess the validity of this claim in the real world?

I am finding more and more that when I frame our work in this way, I hear less and less of the question, "When am I ever going to use this?" And frankly, that's less wear and tear on my soul as a teacher.

With Barbie Bungee, in addition to creating an occasion for more practice in reading aloud and practicing decoding and interpretation skills, I used my situation set-up to raise the EQ, how dangerous is too dangerous? This is a question every adolescent has had to wrestle with since the dawn of time (or at least, since the dawn of puberty as a social construct). In their effort to keep him safe, Siddhartha's parents built him a golden cage of pleasure palaces and theme parks so he would marry and have a life there and never want to leave home. And I can only imagine what Moses' parents must have gone through ("Put down that rod! You're going to put someone's eye out with that thing!").

And the things that matter about that question are (a) the assertion you come up with and (b) the way you marshall concrete evidence and interpretive scaffolding and support to persuade someone else (such as your parents) of the validity and rightness of your assertion.

Coming from a writerly and an entrepreneurial background, I often find that the math of a thing — the essential mathematics of a thing — comes down to what I can persuade someone else of. 

For example, How dangerous is too dangerous? 

Well, it turns out that 28 rubber bands can be empirically demonstrated to be one rubber band too many. With 27 rubber bands, Barbie can have a thrilling — but still safe enough — ride, but at 28, she cracks her head open on the sidewalk, the lawsuits begin, and her parents return to her graveside frequently to tell her "I told you so!" throughout eternity.

And isn't that something we ALL dread?

With the Oreos experiment, the EQs were, Am I being cheated? Are Double Stufs, in fact, double? Is this fair? Is this a good deal? and of course, also, "Does this seem universally and predictably true?"

These are questions every adolescent wallows in every day of their lives. How many times a day do YOU hear, "But that's not FAIR!" or "Mr. C decided such and such. Do you think that is FAIR?"

Fairness is about our own personal beliefs and interpretations of the evidence in light of our own experiences in our world. And only you can answer a question like that for yourself.


  1. "I wonder if we have not been making our Essential Questions (EQs) in mathematics too small. Too narrow." I think we are, Elizabeth, because we're mostly interested in a numerical answer in a math class. Sure, we try to ask kids to show their work and explain their reasoning behind this numerical answer.

    But your EQs take this to a whole another level, kinda similar to the question of "ethics" in a biology or genetics class or the question of "equity" in education itself. (Hey, your E word is in ethics and equity too!)

    This BIG question idea is hurting my narrow-minded brain though. Thank you, Elizabeth.

    1. Thanks for responding, Fawn. I can't wait to hang out with you and talk about all these ideas at TMC13!

      Your comments made me think of a Rumi poem I love that I have hanging over my desk:

      Welcome difficulty.
      Learn the alchemy
      True human beings know.
      The moment you accept what troubles you've been given,
      The door opens.

      — Rumi

  2. LIKE! I remember observing 9th graders in the middle of a unit on measures of center and spread. They were supposed to make box-and-whisker plots (about the weights of male and female grizzly bears, ostensibly to think about if weight was a reliable indicator of bear gender, or something), for which their teacher had handed them rulers. Fooling around 9thgraderishly, one girl held the ruler up to her nose and asked, "Is my nose freakishly large?" Wham! (I thought) Right there, that's the essential question of this unit. Measures of center tell us if our nose is large, and measures of spread tell us if it's freakishly large! I don't recommend that as a lesson essential question unless you're not worried about doing long-term damage to childrens' self-esteem about their noses, but it did seem like it could get a bunch of 9th graders hooked on statistics.

    Maybe one of the jobs of the TMC Morning Sessions could be aligning some BIG essential questions with mathematical topics and the narrow, mathematical essential questions thereunder?