Ramping Up the Inquiry

Is real inquiry-based learning possible in a ninth grade algebra class full of struggling learners? If so, what does it look like? Is it rigorous? Can you cover the content?

Here are my quick answers to the respective questions: Of course it is; See below; Yes and schools don’t understand the meaning of rigor (more on that in a future post); Don’t care.

For the past 5 or 6 weeks my algebra 1 kids and I have been working on a project about the X-Games. Specifically we have looked at skateboarding and mega ramps. I chose this project because I currently teach in a school that has a set curriculum and I have to teach quadratics right now. Since the real world application for quadratics has to do with things being launched in the air, I thought the kids could explore ramps and think about what it would mean to bring the X-Games to our town. I am having them keep a portfolio that includes specific problems related to the project and show the math involved. Here are the first three of these: Quarter Pipe Plans, Skate Contest, Mega Ramp Launch. I will have a couple more, one related to modeling with quadratics and another problem, and this is important, which they will create themselves. Each of the problems is tied to the content pretty explicitly in a way that the final project won’t necessarily be, and I want them to be able to explain to anyone who asks what the math is that they learned to help them understand their project. For the portfolio problem that they create, they will work to identify a math concept that is related to their X-Games event that wasn’t taught in class. For example, they might want to explore the geometry behind ramp construction or transitions on half-pipes that launches a skater vertically. They may want to look at the statistics of X-Games popularity and examine its viability in the future, whatever. I will act as a consultant to help them identify this math concept but they will need to conduct their own inquiry.

Along with the portfolio problems, they have also done some other preliminary project work. One piece was a site-plan for an event that they want in the games that shows seating, area of the event, area for food trucks, and parking. I have them do these pieces along the way to remind them we are working on a bigger project and to give them a chance to do some rough draft work.

In the end, they will need to build a model of a ramp that they believe should be in our town’s version of the X-Games, provide a finalized version of their site plan and other project deliverables we have had along the way, and then present all of this along with their portfolios. Maybe use tech-decks to demonstrate how their ramps work? They will present to some judges, science fair style.

Since we are teaching quadratics and kids generally hate this topic, there are days where it still feels forced and dry, but we keep tying it back to the bigger picture and we keep going deeper into the real-world aspect of what we are doing. There are also plenty of students who aren’t that interested in the X-Games, but we make connections between what they are learning about this event and other events that they might be interested in so that they see the importance of the real-world skills that we are learning. This is what I am hoping anyway and we are about to finish it all up. I’m going to get them through the last piece of mathematics, then bring in tons of card-stock, cardboard, craft sticks, and hot glue and let them go crazy and make a mess.

I have learned to rely less on rubrics and try not to confine kids to lists. The problem is that this is a pretty traditional school structure and people want to see the mathematics explicitly. They want more evidence that the kids are learning the right content so I came up with a format that I think is a decent compromise. This rubric, along with the student portfolios, allows me to show that my alternative assessments are at least somewhere in the same universe as the traditional content while still providing students with voice and choice in their work. I use this format for portfolio grades as well as preliminary project deliverables. Here is my draft for the final rubric of the project: X-Games Structure Model.

I should also really remember a starbucks giftcard for the janitor this time. Then it will be off to the next project.

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