A Teacher's Journal: Using POWER Learning to Increase Student Engagement in Math

For Middle Level

September 14
I made it through the second week of school! I think the curriculum is very challenging for our middle level students (and for me to creatively infuse POWER Learning ideas to engage learners) because it's so textbook centered. So far, I haven't been able to offer students much choice because I can't figure out how to pick and choose pieces from the curriculum and still have it make sense. But I have added elements to spark interest for my lessons. For example, I brought in a bag of candies and had students each take a piece from the bag to demonstrate sampling.

I have been planning for student work time using Have-to's (showing them what they were expected to accomplish) and Can-do's (offering a variety of options and/or extensions). I realized after a couple of days that for me the Have-to's come right out of my content goals. My Can-do's have included: do a review of math facts; finish other math work; try a dodecagon puzzle (students use shapes to complete a dodecagon puzzle).

I'm not sure about the Can-do part of my class yet. So far it feels added on-a somewhat extraneous part of the class. On the other hand, the dodecagon puzzles are good activities because they're experiential and focused on spatial reasoning, which gives students a break from book work.

September 29
We have begun a project-oriented unit on data collection, a good fit for a POWER learning approach. One spark activity we did involved having students execute a standing long jump and record the distances from the stem plot. To add choice, I gave students a list from which to select a survey question and an option to challenge themselves by making a double stem plot. Many students chose this option.

To provide students an audience of their peers, I used the socially interactive engaged-learning strategy called "Stay and Stray," in which a student would stay by his group's graph of the survey and teach students from other groups who came by to learn about the survey. The teachers (those who stayed with their graphs) were required to prepare three meaningful statements about their plots. The statements could include mean, median, mode, lowest point, highest point, and range.

I also had students reflect on the graph they made: Did you make a good choice for your graph? Why, or why not? How could you use the stem plot to find the mean, median, and mode?

October 1
I had a great day today! My 7C Math group did particularly well. They were very focused, for the most part. Some of them completed the work and did not need to do it as homework. The behavior of the other two groups was fine, but they didn't get quite as far.

Work-time activities this week included vocabulary around the world, making histograms from stem plots, and making histograms from tally charts. The spark was always collecting the data. It was a way for them to experience their learning-and it was relevant to them-so I think they enjoyed it more, and learned more, than if they had just worked from the book.

What options did I give them this week? I created "Quadrant Groups," where students made groups of two for Quadrants 1 and 2, groups of three for Quadrant 3, groups of four for Quadrant 4. This week, students had a choice in their quadrant partners.

October 8
I gave students choices in seating, using Quadrant 1, 2, 3, and 4 partners. Students also had a choice about which 5-minute math facts quiz they took: multiplication, division, subtraction, or missing numbers.

October 15
I had a frustrating time with 7B today. All they did was talk, talk, and talk, or at least that's how it seemed to me. I even lost my cool with K_____ and felt that I was focusing on the negatives. Granted, he's got quite a few, but it doesn't help matters if I lose my patience with him. I need to remember that there is good in K______, and that all the students can be good and hard-working. I have to keep looking for ways to engage them, despite their tendency to wander.

For example, I need to give them more chance to make connections to other experiences before starting on their projects. I allowed that for my 7C group and things went much more smoothly. Students were better focused on their work when I did more bridging during my mini-lesson.

October 16
I'm happy to report that I'm back to my patient self! 7B was better today.

October 17
I gave students these choices: multiplication, division, or subtraction for basic facts; working with partners or independently on the data project; choice of which data to work with: How long can you hold your breath? or How far can you throw a cotton ball?; choice of how to analyze the data: comparing boys and girls or comparing seventh grade vs. eighth grade; choice in presentation: poster or overhead.

October 21
My own reflections, after grading data tests at the end of our data collection unit, were as follows:

  • The vast majority of students like the social interaction that comes with working in small groups. They like to help each other and receive help from each other. Students like to experience their learning. For example, they like to collect data.
  • Students like to produce things. For example, they like to make posters.
  • Students like to have an audience for their work-they enjoyed presenting their posters to their peers.
  • Some students liked having choices for working with data; however, some seemed to be overwhelmed by what may have been too many options, at least at this stage in their learning to be responsibly independent.
  • My class ran smoothly most of the time.
  • Students were engaged most of the time, whether working alone, in pairs, or in small groups.
  • Most students are comfortable seeking help from me and from each other.
  • Most of the time, my class sounds productive.
  • My own level of satisfaction about working with this more engaging approach is high.

Next steps
Student engagement was pretty good during work time-during spark activities, data collection, poster preparation, etc.-but I need to address the following weaknesses in the overall unit next time:

  • Many students misinterpret test questions or don't answer the questions completely.
  • Students don't explain their reasoning in their answers. For example, they might answer a question by saying, "It will change," but they won't say how it will change, whether it will go up or down, etc.
  • Students are not always able to read the data, to make connections between the data collected and what it means.
  • Next time, I want to alternate between allowing them to choose their partners and my forming their groups for them, to ensure more equitable groups.
  • I want to work more with struggling students, and I may even modify the project requirements for a few students who really seem to need it in order to experience success.
  • In the future, I'll be more careful about exactly when to offer choice, when not to, and about how many choices to offer. I'll gradually build their capacity for the autonomy and social interaction they crave.



A Note from Origins on Developmental Designs POWER Learning

The Developmental Designs POWER approach to learning helps teachers build engaging, developmentally appropriate lessons for their students-lessons that meet students' needs for competence, autonomy, relationship, and fun.

POWER learning is built upon the six best practices that generate sustained student interest in learning: Choice; Social Interaction; Expert Input; Experience; Audience; and Reflection.



Ven Mai Tran teaches Math to middle schoolers at Community of Peace Academy in St. Paul MN.

This article first appeared in the Origins' publication Developmental Designs: A Middle School Newsletter, Winter 2009