Dark Classrooms & Parking Lots

It was the time in a teacher’s winter weekday where you sigh and realize you’ll watch the sunset from the same classroom you watched it rise. I’d been here before – enough times to stash a sweatshirt to counter the nightly cooling of the heaters. I’d already startled Frank, the custodian, who wasn’t the only one repeating a sad routine.

Older teachers brag of cutting and gluing handouts as if word processors free us from their burden. Copy and paste replaced scissors and tape, but the worksheets are no less draining for teachers and students than they were before. At least the older teachers weren’t slaves to math standards that told you what to do and pacing charts that told you when to do it. Eighteen months on the job and I was already bored with the repetition. Lessons resurface annually, but daily is the grind of twenty five students absorbing the same information. Retirement is salvation for some, but is further away than the day I was born. Screw it, I thought. I’m planning something different.

The one-page activity I created that evening and now share below was my first effort to be giddy for the next class instead of the next snow day. The archive is no place for a first effort. I’ve matured since then and now take risks limited not by my own fear, but the need for students to pass the same final as another section. And they do.

Title: Parking Lot Proposal (doc)
Course: Honors Geometry
Topic: Parallelograms
Type/Time: Activity, 1 hour
CCSS: G-CO.3 and G-CO.11 (when we do area of quadrilaterals)

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This is not a project and is not to be used as a review at the end of a unit. This activity is not for the day after “covering” area of parallelograms, it is the day for it. I group students in threes or fours and give a very brief introduction. There are four styles of parking lots here. Your group has 35 minutes to find the area of the lots, their space efficiency, their cost, and decide which should be used. I give two minutes for them to read the handout, thirty seconds to identify any questions, and then I answer them. Then the timer starts.

Groups have poster paper to work on and I circulate the room. I listen, I watch, and I talk as little as possible. I ask questions. Some groups split up the four lots and some work together. If they need a formula, I suggest they Google it. “Is this right?” they ask. “Go to another group and compare,” I say. If the answers match, they’re likely right – find one more person to verify. If they don’t, work together to find the error or find another person with an answer. You’ll watch students “construct a viable argument and critique the reasoning of others.” I repeat this strategy from September until students confer with each other without asking me.

The output? Short: ten minute discussion on which option is preferable and why. There is no singular answer and you should embrace this. Medium: every student writes a paragraph that night about which option is preferable defended by their work. Give ten minutes for groups to reconvene the next day and compare paragraphs. Discuss as a class. Long: same as medium except give a class block with laptops for groups to write a one page letter about which should exist on school grounds. Invite the building facilities person to class to discuss.

This activity was the first that disrupted my routine. The time between such activities has shrunk after each one. I’ve since created to multi-day activities, labs, and even a month-long project in – yes – an honors class. I only hope you don’t wait until left in a dark classroom to start teaching.

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