Labs for Math?

Last week, I posted this tweet:

Before I get into the responses, allow me to provide some context...

This coming week, I will be joined by many of my NYS Master Teacher colleagues from the Central NY, Capital Region, Mohawk Valley, and North Country Regions for our annual conference. In addition to many great Master Teacher-led breakout sessions, there will also be "Open Space" discussions taking place around the central theme of "Fostering Interdisciplinary Collaboration".

I was asked to facilitate a topic of my choice that relates to the central theme. So after some brainstorming, I came up with the quote in the tweet.

I've been teaching for many years and as an experienced teacher, my instructional style has evolved. During my early years, I, like most beginning teachers, stuck to the script. Carefully developed lesson plans became something akin to cue cards and worksheets and packets became the props. 

But once I got my teaching legs (i.e. confidence), I started to develop activities and explorations that allowed students to discover math. What better way for students to be engaged in a lesson if they become the mathematicians? I never wanted to become this guy (aka "The Sage on the Stage"):

After developing my teaching chops for 9 years in a small rural middle school in NH, I came to teach high school in a large suburban district in upstate NY.

My new teaching assignment included teaching year one of a program titled "Integrated Regents Program". This was a program where classes were small and the math, science, and CTE teacher worked in teams. The idea behind these teams was to support the students, since we all taught the same 45 students (three sections of 15 each), and to develop interdisciplinary activities. The second part was great, in theory, but not always put into practice. But what did happen is that I became connected and developed a rapport with teachers outside of my department.

As I taught year one, and in later years, year three of the program, I was able to leverage these relationships as sources for inspired-integration. During the course of our conversations and my visits to the science and CTE classrooms, I was able to develop many investigations or labs which became means for the students to investigate and/or apply the math concepts that we were working on. I quickly found myself spending more time doing labs in these classes, because the students (and I) enjoyed them more. We all got more out of these activities than working on a packet.

One of my favorite labs involved testing wall anchors. This was part of our unit on vectors. We would "do the math" to calculate, in theory, how much a particular wall anchor should support. Then we put it to the test. Here is a video showing one of our tests:

Another one of my teaching assignments included teaching a section of "Math Lab". Unfortunately, I think the term "Lab" was a bit of a misnomer. Math Lab was a AIS period where students were assigned if they needed remediation in preparation to take or possible re-take a Regents examination. The class was not at all a lab and was just more worksheets and a second period of math for students who most likely do not like math and struggle.

So that brings me to my tweet? I think the question is a rhetorical one. Of course math classes should have labs! I don't think many would disagree. But what does a math lab look like? I think of two models.

The easiest being activities and investigations that take place in the classroom. Break away from the packet/worksheet and actually do math. This can involve using manipulatives, dynamic software like GeoGebra and Desmos, and resources from other content areas in your school. Here is a couple of methods for demonstrating the rotation of a triangle around one of its edges:

But why can't math classes have a lab period? Most schools have separate science lab periods built into their schedules (Bio/Earth Science/Chem/Physics lab). Why not offer Algebra/Geometry/Algebra 2/Pre-Calc/Calc/Stats labs in a student schedule? The obvious answer is "time" - not enough periods availble in student schedules to do this? But some schools do include a lab period for some math classes (thanks Dan and Tim for your feedback):

Perhaps my favorite response though is (thanks Berkeley):

So I've got some good thoughts going into our "Open Space" discussions on Friday with the NYS MT's. Until then, feel free to turn your class into a lab!


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