After a few days in New York with some wonderful math Twitter folks, I have had just the push I wanted to get my mind thinking about the start of the year.  I have my collection of tangram-like materials, so I can do the Master Designer activity I just learned about.  In fact, I want to have my department do the activity together (or maybe Broken Circle) so they can help their students think about group norms.  I’m already excited just thinking about that!

I also want to bring an idea I had last year back into my “start-of-the-year” mind.  My Honors Precalculus class was in the midst of doing a long-term project, where they were working pairs.  As I looked at each group, I could see the way that each person brought something to make that group even better.  For example, there were two girls were exploring the odds of winning a tennis match if you win the first point.  Three things stand out to me as I think back about this particular partnership.  First of all, these two girls are (and were) powerhouses.  They are going to change the world and do amazing things.  I can see it in how they go after an idea, asking great questions, helping others, and not being afraid to be the “skeptic” in class, not letting some niggling concern go and going after a concept completely.  Wow!  Just thinking about what they may do someday gets me excited.

The second reason that this pairing stuck in my mind is because of how their project idea came to be.  They had followed my initial brainstorming instructions and landed on this tennis idea (which they eventually pursued).  I chatted with them briefly and tried to sway their work in another direction.  In retrospect, I don’t know why I did that.  Instead of letting them draw me in, and helping them find the path to the math they could explore, I tried to get them to pick another idea where the math was more immediately apparent to me.  I don’t want to do that again, so that moment was a great turning point for me.

Lastly, and the reason I’m writing this blog post, this group was a team in the best sense of the word.  One of them had concurrently taken Honors Statistics, so she could engage in a statistical analysis of the question they wanted to pursue. The other student was enrolled in Introductory Programming and was making great progress in that class.  Simultaneously, these two students were able to do an incredibly thoughtful analysis of the tennis question.  One wrote a simulation to run repeated random trials and investigate, while the other student wrote the statistical analysis (using R) to assess the question.  

As I described this group working together, I found myself noting how they made such a great team.  It let me think of each of the other partners in a similar fashion and see this everywhere.  Another set of two boys together were extremely interested in data analysis, and both had strong skills using a spreadsheet.  Their work together was improved by being a joint project.  A third group benefitted from a Python coder in the midst.

The reason I write all of this is to remember that feeling.  I want my class to feel like we are all on the same team.  I’m glad one person is there because they know more about coding than I do; you are glad I’m here because I may be able to explain hard ideas better to you than the teacher can.  As I think more about group norms and the start of the year, I know I want to make sure to be explicit about the team goal for all of us.  As an entire class, we will be an impressive group.  When we work in smaller teams, we still all have skills to be sharing out.  In fact, this may be the most important thing to have students share about themselves early in the year.  What are you good at?  What can you do, but don’t really like to do?  What do you think of as an area in which you’d like to improve?


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