Wednesday, July 29, 2015

7/28/15 - How Will You Survive? My Favorite 1st Day of School Activity.

Every year teachers, myself included, struggle with that first day of school activity. As a math teacher I find the first week or so particularly stressful because there is so much material to "cover" in a year. Often I begin the year already feeling weeks behind.  Despite the Sword of Damocles that is high stakes testing hanging over me, I decided to change the way I approached the beginning of the year.

Last year I found a first day activity that I just fell in love with (1st Day of School Activity: Ranking Survival Supplies). It isn't math related, but the critical thinking, communication and decision making skills required are without question.  I didn't do the activity exactly as described (shocking, I know), but overall I was very pleased with the results.

To the best of my recollection, this is what happened during my first attempt with this activity.  I began by showing the beginning of the pilot episode of Lost. For those of you not familiar with Lost, this scene begins with the main character, Jack, waking up in the middle of what looks to be a jungle. He fights his way into a clearing only to be confronted with the chaos and wreckage of the plane he was on.  The scene lasts about five minutes, during which Jack courageously works to rescue survivors, revive the unconscious, prevent premature labor and save two of the shows main characters from horrible deaths, only to have the wreckage of the plane explode in true spectacular Hollywood fashion.

Students were divided into groups of four. A list of sixteen supplies that survived the explosion (first aid kit, knife, flares, vanity mirror, iPhone with 87% charge to name a few) were distributed and students were asked to order them from most to least important in a disaster situation, explaining that they would be required to justify their choices to the class.
I gave the groups fifteen minutes to work, circulated to observe and answered questions as needed. Last year, our first day schedule was a minimum day so I had 35 minutes to take roll, distribute paperwork, work on this activity and debrief.  As you can imagine, it was not nearly enough time, so I ended up settling for groups reporting out on their top five items and why.  I wrapped up the activity by briefly review the suggested ranking provided by the author in the activity instructions.

I ended the first day with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I had tried something new and completely outside of my normal first day activity. Students were excited, engaged and eager to see what would happen next. On the other hand, I felt like things could have gone much better. Given enough time, class time and planning time, I could make this activity so much more than what it ended up being on my first attempt.

So a year goes by and I don't so much as think about this activity. Again, shocking, I know. But Laurie, you say, you have plenty of time to revamp this activity and make it into something spectacular. Not so. Last Wednesday was my first day back with students!! We're on a modified year round schedule giving us just six short weeks of summer vacation. During my pre-service days, I took a look at this activity and decided I wanted to try it again. This time I knew I had an extra 10 minutes to play with so I took the opportunity and made a couple of subtle, but important, changes.

I decided I wanted to emphasis critical thinking, collaboration, independence and communication.
Here's how it went . . .

After I showed the opening scene, I asked students to recall what seems like a rather insignificant part when a fellow survivor, Boone, is attempting mouth to mouth on an unconscious passenger. Jack intervenes, pointing out his ineffective technique and overall incompetence. The inept Boone then suggests finding a pen to "do the pen in the throat thing." Jack, seeing his opportunity to get rid of this nuisance, sends Boone off in search of a pen.

At this point, most of the class giggles, remembering Boone running around asking, "Does anyone have a pen?" I ask if anyone knows what he was talking about. Luckily someone in each class could provide a rudimentary explanation as to why Boone wanted the pen. I shared that this procedure is called a tracheotomy and why it is performed (in 8th grade friendly terms). This opened up a discussion about the intended use of items and how versatility increases the "value" of an item in a survival situation.

At this point, I provide the list of 16 items as before. Students were then allowed to ask clarifying questions about the items before beginning the ranking process. The questions they asked gave me insight into their thought processes. Some common questions were,

"Does the canteen have water in it?"
"How many matches do you have?"
"What is in the first aid kit?"

Despite the extra ten minutes, this was still not enough time to really delve into the activity to the level I was hoping to go. I decided to spend another day on it. 

Then I left for Twitter Math Camp for four days ;-)

My TMC15 experience was amazing. I met so many inspiring people and spent three days trying to survive a zombie apocalypse (which i did - the sole survivor btw) ala @approx_normal and @jdmahlstedt . One thing I took away from TMC experience directly affected how I proceeded with this activity upon my return to school. My big takeaway (Sorry, I don't remember who said it :-( ) is you have to get students thinking before you can get them thinking about math. This idea seems so obvious but I've always felt so pressured to begin the curriculum I didn't take the time to have students practice just thinking critically and expressing their thoughts to each other. I am dedicated to changing that. I was not going to rush through this just to jump into the curriculum. 

Upon returning on Monday, I asked my students to collaborate with their teams to pick their top five items. We reviewed the concept of versatility and students researched items they were unsure about (salt tablets was a stumper), using their iPads.  After picking their top five, each group divided up their items and performed in-depth research as to alternate uses for each item.  

We continued the activity Tuesday. I asked students to convince their teammates that their item was the most versatile, and thus the most valuable to have in a survival situation. Once each team member presented their argument, groups had to come to consensus as to the most desirable item. As you can imagine their was some lively discussions. In several groups, consensus was not possible so we had to settle on compromise.  Teams then planned a short presentation using the Explain Everything app and presented their argument to two other groups, the goal being to persuade others that their item should be everyone's top pick.

The final component of this activity differed drastically from my first attempt. I realized for what I was trying to accomplish, practice of critical think, decision making and communication skills, knowing the author's ranking was unimportant. Instead, I concluded the activity with a whole group discussion and debrief about what students learned.  Many students felt they were better prepared for a survival situation (adorable) but even more felt they were more able to justify their ideas to others and "think outside of the box" (ie. construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of other. Yes!!) Overall, I feel my second attempt was far more successful then the first (and yes, I have some ideas on how to make it even better for next year).

Here are links to other similar activities.

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