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

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

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

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

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.

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

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
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

  • Many students misinterpret test questions or don’t answer the questions
  • 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
  • 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

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.

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

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