Several years ago, I attended an EdCamp ATX event here in Austin. One of the sessions featured formative assessment strategies, and a particular task struck me. I wish I remembered her name, and I wish I still had the resource in hand, but the concept goes like this… each of us was handed a sheet of paper with, say, 9 blocks that formed a larger square. Each of these 9 blocks contained some information.
At the top of the sheet was the simple question… “Is It a Rock?”
At our seats (probably alone first, then in groups) we had to analyze the information provided in each of the 9 blocks and decide, did that piece of information describe a rock? Yes or No? Take a stand. I loved the simplicity of the question, and the depth of the information provided in each square on the handout.
Why not for math?
I started thinking of questions we could ask students… Is It Linear? Is It Parallel? Is It Perpendicular? Is it a Direct Variation?
Maybe you’re thinking of some “Is It ________?” questions that are coming up in your own mathematics curriculum. Though the question is simple, and the answer will be “Yes” or “No”, the beautiful part of this strategy is choosing what you’d like to put in those (9 is an arbitrary number of) blocks.
So, I made this.
I created a few different versions using a Pages template I whipped up, asking students various “Is It ________?” questions.
This week, I assigned one of these for homework. At the start of class the following day, students discussed their stances on each of the 9 blocks.
I walked around and listened to their conversations and arguments. In the past, my next move would have been to place my own sample key on display for students to check their work, and have a little Q & A as needed, and that would have been it.
But I’m glad it didn’t end there.
This time, rather than show “my” key, I asked students to show their final stances on each of the 9 blocks by completing a Desmos Card Sort that contained the same 9 equations as the handout. In theory, students had plenty of time to do the work they needed to do for the 9 blocks independently as homework, and had a chance to talk it out with a friend and possibly make revisions, but no “answer key” had been provided this time.
As students started to sort their cards to match the thinking on their papers, we started to see some red stacks. The polarizing feedback of a Desmos Card Sort can be harsh sometimes… a stack turns red if EVEN ONE card is out of place, so this was eye-opening.
When students were surprised by red stacks, there was a new level of engagement in the room. They started talking more, asking more questions of one another, and darn it… they wanted GREEN STACKS!
They asked better questions too. “Wait, can a line be parallel to ITSELF?” Or, understanding NOW that (2x)/3 and (2/3)x are equivalent, and WHY 2/(3x) is not the same. Catching errors through showing more work than they initially had… and, to be fair, some didn’t show ANY work at all at the start, as my handout’s directions didn’t seem to require it… all that was “required” was a checkmark, no?
The question, “WHY IS MY STACK RED?” was a lot more intriguing than, in the past, “Why doesn’t my paper match Mrs. Yenca’s answer key?”
You see, I don’t think they ever really wanted MY answer key anyway. Once Card Sort became part of the experience, they wanted to create their OWN key.
And that’s what they did.
Below is a PDF file of this “Is It Parallel?” task, as well as a link to a Desmos Activity. The Desmos Activity can be used independently, or “chunked” as I’ve described here.
I’d love to hear about some “Is It ________?” questions you’re thinking about!
What are some “Is It __________?” math questions you could ask your students, using this “blocks” format?
How could a Desmos Card Sort follow-up bring engagement and encourage more dialogue and deeper understanding to the task?