When we first began this awesome project I told my students that the whole point was to build a canoe and prove that it could float using math. In other words, they had to communicate their conclusion using evidence. After they finished the boat, I invited Joel, the guy from the nearby swimming pool, to come to our classroom and question my students to see if they knew their stuff. Joel was great. He took on a very serious demeanor and made it clear that if they could convince him that the canoe would float, they were welcome to bring it down to the pool and paddle away. But if they couldn’t, he “wouldn’t be responsible for allowing a canoe into his pool that he wasn’t convinced was a safe vessel.”
The kids bought it. They sat there intensely with their science notebooks out-and-opened .
First question: What kinds of things did you measure to see if they’d float or sank?
Answer: A wooden block, a golf ball, a metal bolt and our model canoes.
Answer: Everything with a density greater than one will sink. If the density is less than one, it floats.
Question: Why was a density of “one” so important?
Answer: Because that’s the density of water. We also measured that. If something is denser than water, it will sink. Otherwise it will float.
Q: How did you find the density?
A: We divided the mass by the volume.
Q: What was the density of your canoe?
A: 0.026 grams per cubic centimeter!!
The students went on to explain exactly how they calculated the density. They consulted the graphs they drew in their notebooks. Joel was impressed. He was convinced by the evidence. Personally. I was impressed by the way my students addressed CCSS Literacy standard 4.1:
Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation and other information known about the topic to explore ideas under discussion.
And when I say “my students” I’m talking about all of them. The high-flyers and the tag-alongs. Joel gathered them around the boat itself and asked very specific questions about the construction, measurements and density. He was very good about calling on kids who didn’t have their hands up, and they all knew their stuff. They all met the standard.
(In case you’re wondering, yes; Joel and I were in communication well ahead of time. I coached him on what to ask and told him how my students had conceptualized their proof. I don’t like to leave important things to chance.)
Next came the fun part. We carried our canoe down the street to the pool. They had a lane reserved for us and one of the lifeguards taught them how to get in and out safely. They had a blast! And yes, the canoe floated, despite one small leak. (Hey, it was built by fourth graders!)
Our next step was to recount the whole experience in slideshow format, using good old PowerPoint. The student wrote their slide shows in groups of two. Their audience was our second-grade buddy class. They came up and went from group to group, getting essentially the same message told by different groups. But it was still worthwhile; my students took turns, showing the little kids their computers, their model canoes and the class canoe. In short, they did this:
Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.
After that it was time for the District STEM expo. I assigned them into groups of five or six and had them produce classic tri-fold poster boards. Each board had computer-produced graphs, details on the construction of the models and the class canoe, the trip to the pool and the evidence-based conclusion. And pictures. The focus was the following standard:
Add audio recordings or visual displays to presentations when appropriate to enhance the development of main ideas or themes.
On the day of the Expo, the district van came by to collect the posters and drop off some really-cool T-shirts. It was an evening event, so I was worried about how many kids would actually show up, given the fact that our population doesn’t typically show up in large numbers for extra-curricular events. I was pleasantly surprised to see 19 kids attend, along with their families; about twice as many as I had for curriculum night!
It was a great event. Our canoe was a big hit, almost as big as the high school robotics team competitions and the alternative high school electric-guitar building team, but not quite. The following Saturday I took the canoe to a local pond and invited the kids to drop by for some boating. It was a great way to end a fantastic unit of study.
Now here’s the thing. The whole point of these three posts was not to convince you to build canoes with your class. That would probably be a waste of time. The point is to convince you that teaching to the CCSS can let you be as creative as possible. There is nothing limiting about these standards; nothing prescriptive. I love building boats with kids. You probably don’t. Perhaps your passion is drama, music, knitting or sculpture. There’s no reason in the world why you can’t pursue that passion with your kids and still ground your instruction on high-quality instructional standards.
Isn’t that why all of us went into teaching in the first place?