Filling in the Blanks

"I may not be the best at what I do, but I'm the only one who does it."

This was my senior quote in my high school yearbook. I think I saw it on a t-shirt, and I thought it was funny and clever at the time. But little did I know, it would speak to my mindset as a teacher.

I just finished my 23rd year as a classroom teacher. During my career, I've seen many things come and go (methods, standards, technologies), and I've given in to instructional peer pressure. But more often than not, I've chosen my own path and done what suits me and, more importantly my students, best.

This past school year, something struck me. As the parent of an 11th grader in the same school that I teach in, and as I looked at my own students, I realized that they work almost exclusively with packets. Each subject, each unit, has a packet. And I'm not just talking about a few handouts; we're talking packets that can contain as many as 100 pages or more. That's per unit, per student, per course. A frequent joke in the office is that we do a great job killing trees at our school. Not funny if you consider the environmental impact (that's not what this post is about) and the educational impact (that's what this post is about).

I wondered if the packet-trend was specific to our school, but I suspect it's not. I understand the upsides of packets, and I was a regular user of them for many years because of them. The packet serves as "one-stop-shopping" for notes, in-class practice, homework, and review. For many teachers, the packet acts as the notebook, textbook, and teacher notes. So I do see the benefits. But packets (and worksheets) often just require students to fill-in-the-blanks. But when I realized that students are mostly just using packets, I tried something different with one of my units during third quarter.

I decided to not use a packet for the first time. Needless to say, it was a little nerve-wracking for a micromanager such as myself. We used a lot of plain printer paper where students would make sketches, solve problems, take their own notes, make their own observations. It became apparent that giving students a sheet of white paper to work from was outside of their own educational paradigm. They had become so programmed to work with the scaffolding provided by the packet. The use of plain paper forced them to write more, draw more, organize more, and (I hope) think & grow more.

The image at the top of the post is from one of those adult coloring pages. They seemed to be popular with a number of books, apps, and special coloring tools that grown-ups would use. I was interested for a bit, because I don't consider myself to be very artistic. But I realized, that I was just filling in the blanks. 

Over the past year, I started using GeoGebra and Desmos to explore my hidden artistic abilities. 


I've learned that apps such as these can be utilized by myself, and by my students, to create, play, explore, and discover the many wonderful things that can happen in mathematics. I don't feel that this can happen n a worksheet or on a packet. Just give the user an empty canvass, no blanks to fill in, no scaffolding, maybe just a few suggestions and a bit of guidance, and some amazing things can happen.

Recently, I posted a tweet about the Desmos activity builder:

It generated some conversation with a few of my #MTBoS colleagues. The comments encouraged me to try using the tool. I understand the benefits of the tool, but the activity builder (and similarly the GeoGebra worksheet tool) feels like an on-line worksheet or packet. The tool just doesn't feel like something that will work for me and where I am as a teacher. 

So as I look ahead to year 24, I'll be doing a lot more whiteboarding and whitepapering:

Like my senior quote says, I'll probably be the only one who does it. But I believe my students will be the beneficiaries.


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