Monday, February 25, 2008

Frostballs and a “Relevant” Lesson on Estimation

I grew up in the Bay Area of California where it doesn’t snow and you can grow into adulthood without ever seeing an icicle. But every once in a rare and wonderful while, we did have frost.

I remember one such winter day when my friends and I got to school before the first bell and headed for the playground to make “frostballs.” We set to work scraping the frost off blades of grass on the field and mashing them together into a giant lumpy brown ball. We were so proud of that frostball that we carried it to class and the teacher let us put it on a plate by the window. Without so much as a pause she turned our frostball into a lesson on estimation complete with graphs and a rich discussion. Everyone in the class had to guess how long it would take for the ball to completely melt.

We talked about what prior knowledge informed our guesses. Some students had been to the mountains and made real snow balls. Some reflected on how long it took an ice cube to melt in a glass of water. Some talked about how the frostball’s position in the room would speed or delay its melting. Some wanted to experiment with smaller balls before making their guess. In the end the ball surpassed all our guesses. Nobody saw its final meltdown after the last school bell of the day sent us home.

Twenty years later I still remember so much from that tiny experience: the questions we asked, the charts we drew on the board, the stories we shared of melting things. That teacher took a moment from outside of the classroom and used it to build some key skills in her students. That probably wasn’t the day she planned to teach about estimation, and she didn’t have a worksheet or a textbook to guide her lesson but she managed to cement some learning into my brain even without these tools.

Making learning relevant to the lives of our students requires more of our ability to be smart and spontaneous and to open our eyes than it does our ability to plan complicated lessons. If you watch and listen to your students, you’re likely to find sources of inspiration a million times richer than what you’re given in the curriculum.

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