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Feltron Post-Mortem

a/k/a My Qualified Disaster
a/k/a The Trouble With Tech

previously on dy/dan

We started with four variables (text messages, beers per day, etc.) which we tracked for 2.5 months in quad-ruled notebooks attempting to transform the quotidian details of our lives into extraordinary infodesigns a lá Nicholas Felton.

This was a departure for me. A tech-driven, student-led, design-infused mathematical project. Things went wrong.

This is a comprehensive autopsy of our Feltron Project. I post it here, in its entirety, a) for my own review next year, b) for your criticism. If you aren’t in the mood for the full, bone-by-bone dissection, please scan down to the section headed What Really Happened. These are problems I don’t know how to solve.

The Lesson Plan

a/k/a What Was Supposed To Happen

  1. We selected variables.
  2. We discussed them, making them more interesting (disaggregating “hugs per day” into “boy hugs” and “girl hugs”) and more manageable (tracking “fast food I eat” instead of “what I eat”).
  3. We tracked them for ten weeks, checking ourselves for consistency every two weeks, and then we stopped.
  4. We spent one hour marveling over Nicholas Felton’s annual report, dissecting it for meaning, identifying the mathematical operations (average, maximum, minimum, sum) and the mathematical forms (pie chart, line graph, histogram, stacked bar graph, map) he used.
  5. We spent six hours entering our data into Excel sheets.
  6. We spent two hours teaching and deriving ten facts of our lives using average, maximum, minimum, and sum functions in Excel.
  7. We spent two hours teaching and deriving four graphs of our lives using pies, lines, and bars.
  8. Raw facts and graphs in hand, we spent thirty minutes discussing and distilling Felton’s graphic design savvy into the two principles I thought my freshmen could reproduce with crayons and paper if they had nothing else:
    1. colors, Felton uses a two-color design (shades of black, shades of blue) which, apart from distinguishing his hierarchy (titles in black, data in dark blue, accents in light blue, etc.) keeps down costs when designing for a large print run.
    2. grids, the kind your eyes can’t see but which your brain loves, the kind which imposes order on what would otherwise be a completely disordered data set, so while Felton jumps from music to movies to drinks you know where to find everything.
  9. We spent another two hours in class tying up loose ends in Excel and then a week designing our Feltron Projects.

What Really Happened

a/k/a Help.

  1. Only 55% of my students submitted the final Feltron ProjectControlling for age: 48% of freshmen and 63% of upperclassmen completed the project..
  2. Many of the other 45% stopped tracking early in the project, which meant assigning them review work, new work, or busy work while everyone else worked in Excel.
  3. Those who kept up with the project quickly staggered their progress (based on pre-existing computer ability, typing speed, and attendance) which saw me dashing between desks, explaining and re-explaining the same procedures over and over again.
  4. Our mobile computer lab a) comprised just fifteen laptops, and b) was available for check-out only once a week, c) if that.
  5. Kids lost work. I had them send their Excel files to themselves and then download the attachment the next day. Trouble was kids sent old files to themselves or they named files computer arsenic like “<<xxxx….davidsfeltronz!!!….xxxx.xls>>” which put both Excel and Gmail into simultaneous cardiac arrestFor the record, I originally sought GoogleDocs out for this project but they maxed out at something like fifty rows where we needed hundreds..
  6. I overestimated my students’ computer fluency. Name it: locating saved files, opening programs, using a trackpad, using modifier keys, sending e-mail. These tasks all required constant, patient re-explanation. Missed that mark by a country mileThere were exceptions, naturally, but Digital Immigrants™ outnumbered Natives™ at 15:1, many of which Natives one day, I have little doubt, will grow up to be edubloggers..
  7. None of them had used Excel before. Ever. Many didn’t have it at home. One triumph of this project — recognized by a lot of students — is that my kids are now somewhere in the top quintile of Excel users. This will doubtlessly prove useful again in their lives — not in the when-will-we-ever-use-this-in-real-life? sense, like they won’t be able to find food or shelter without Excel, just that it will open up a lot of interesting opportunities.

What Mattered

a/k/a Grading

  1. Faithful Tracking
  2. Interesting Findings
  3. Clear Design

Students ranked themselves on a ten-point scale across each index. Given how deeply we had immersed ourselves in exemplary work over two-and-a-half months, with only a few exceptions, I gave them exactly the grades they felt they deserved.

What I’ll Do Next Time

a/k/a If There Is A Next Time, Obviously

  1. Host screencasts online demonstrating essential Excel proceduresincl: sorting columns, using formulas (avg, min, max, sum, countif), saving/sending work, creating new sheets, filling down the date..
  2. Strengthen our analysis. A student’s text message graph plunged for a week when her parents confiscated her phone and spiked when she pulled a boyfriend in May. Students positively thrilled to see those connections but we didn’t build any of that analysis into the project grading. Should’ve.
  3. Employ a Kuropatwa-esque rubric to better inform kids what constitutes “clear design” or “faithful tracking.”
  4. Discuss design in greater depth, incl.
    1. showing them what my own Feltron would look like with rangy, mean grids or spasmodic colors;
    2. showing off the good and bad from this year’s class;
    3. comparing/constrating Khoi Vinh’s approach to grids and David Carson’s insane anti-grids;
    4. showing them Aesthetic Apparatus’ beautiful work in just three-or-fewer colors;
    5. compare 3D graphs alongside 2D hoping a lot of students will reconsider the choices they’ve made in life.
  5. Make a more obvious point of my own Feltron Project. Playing along with your students isn’t even optional here. I made sure I ran through the collection process with my students (for empathy, if nothing else) but I should’ve made a larger point of my own struggle and process.
  6. Find collaborators. This was insane. I should not have gone at this aloneAny takers?.

Students On Feltron

Just do a month.

JG, smart; we’ll multiply a month by 12 to extrapolate for a year.

Everyone should track the same thing because it’d be really cool to see which people are like you.

BP, also smart; resolved, then, that we’ll select three variables independently of the class and then select a common classroom variable for the fourth.

I like the chalang. It feels like I acopolished something hard and it made me feel good.

BS, sic sic sic; whose mother, in an IEP meeting, said of his Feltron notebook, “He carries it everywhere.”

Felton On Feltron

Nicholas Felton consented to an e-mail interview on his process which will appear in this space tomorrow.

Gallery

I have installed student work — everything from awful to exemplary, but mostly exemplary — into a Flickr set.

Handouts

  1. Feltron Project Outline
  2. Nicholas Felton Analysis Sheet
  3. Excel Chart Illustrations
  4. Excel Formula Sheet
  5. Map Infograph Template
  6. Final Review Sheet

To Conclude

This was a different, necessary kind of insanity for me to finish my fourth year teaching even a little eager for a fifth. The price tag was steep. To accommodate this time-sucking project-based learning, we skipped a third of our logic unit in Geometry and fully jettisoned last year’s Platonic Solids project.

If I weren’t already guzzling away at this barrel of standards-based Kool-Aid, I’d write something agitated and truly inexcusable here about curriculum narrowing or the time cost of NCLB, but I remain convinced we need to settle on a list of necessary skills and then decide horse-in-front-of-cart-style on the best tools and projects to teach themNoted here: Jay Greene’s j’accuse directed at teachers who complain that NCLB exigencies leave them with no time for fun project but who also wile away the last month of school with parties, assorted time wasters, etc. We didn’t start computer lab work with Feltron until after our round of state assessment.. I do not know if this was that.

There are twenty-four hours. No exceptions. I’m uncertain Feltron was the best use of our time.

I put Feltron to rest now, surely the weirdest assignment I’ve concocted in a four-year career. I post this here to solicit the usual gallery of critique and construction but also because, at some point in this whole blogging thing, I forgot how else to end a project if not with rigorous and public self-critique.

The Feltron Project

[BTW: the post-mortem.]

At the start of winter semester, maybe a month ago, I told them they’d have homework every night, even weekends.

I called it The Feltron Project. I showed ’em mine and asked them to identify the mathematical forms. I told them we were going to take their lives and make math out of them.

Track Your Life In Four Ways

I told them they had to track four variables this semester. I shared with them my ownAnyone crazy enough to try this with me: it’s essential you play along with your students.:

  • where I’ve been [cities per day]
  • text messages sent / received [quantity per person per day]
  • movies I’ve watched [title per medium (dvd, theater, ipod) per day]
  • coffee drinks i’ve purchased [accessory per drink per location per day]

The Feltron Notebook

While they thought on it, we made Feltron notebooks: graph paper, folded, cut into quarters, and bound with repurposed file folders the last teacher left behind.

I showed them how I designed my own Feltron notebook (Coudal’s Field Notes, natch) to maximize page use.

How Do We Grade Your Life?

We discussed grading. What would an A look like? An F? A C? I steered the conversation towards three criteria:

  • the interesting-ness of the variables chosen
  • their consistent tracking
  • their clear & pretty design

We discussed interesting and un-interesting variables. Some students are rocking this thing all semester long, counting calories, tracking everyone they text over a semester, tallying every ounce of everything they drink.

Other students are skating, tracking the number of days they’re late to school, tracking the number of times they sneeze, etc.

We conferenced, each student and I, and I suggested changes, both to add value to their final project and to make the assignment easier for themFor instance, 100 kids decided to track “TV Watched.” “What does that mean?” I’d ask. “Uh.” they’d reply. “So make it min/channel/day or min/show/day, whichever you prefer.”.

Checkpoints

This thing runs on bi-weekly checkpoints [pdf] where I move around the class and verify that everyone’s keeping up.

One Indication This Assignment Wasn’t Stupidly-Conceived

Not one student has taken exception to the workload. Several students, without my prompting, have integrated a notebook update into their daily classroom routine.

The Moment I Fell In Love With The Thing

One freshman decided to track the cigarettes she smoked each day. Not because she wanted to scandalize me or her classmates. She just “always kinda wondered.”

One Month Later

I surveyed 99 students last week: “how much time do you spend updating your Feltron notebook each day?”

The average response was 5.5 minutes with a maximum of 31 minutes and a minimum of 0 minutesNo idea what the minimum’s about..

Next Steps

  • I ordered a hard copy of Nicholas Felton’s annual report (to which my assignment pays seeerious homage). We’ll pass pages around and develop a written narrative of his year.
  • Then I’ll fabricate entire data sets. eg. some girl’s caffeine intake over the course of a semester. We’ll run through several infodesigns and discuss which ones tell the most effective, truthfulAll better? story. We’ll use other data sets (eg. hours spent studying) to introduce some superficial correlation.
  • Uh. That’s all I have.

The Big Questions

  • Do we make the graphs in Excel or work out the math by hand? One option gets ’em dirty with the math. One is more useful to their post-grad experience.
  • What do I do when a student comes to class a month into the project and claims her dog ate her Feltron notebook? The question, as of first period today, ain’t hypothetical.

The Regret

I should’ve collaborated with someone here. I don’t know another teacher, period, who’s out there sweating the connection between language and math like I am here which makes The Feltron Project something of a blind jump off the high dive when it ain’t altogether obvious that the pool is filled with water, thumbtacks, or nothing.

Starter Pack

Hi! This blog is over ten years old and has hosted 1,500 posts during its first ten years. Let me pull out some highlights.

I taught high school math for six years and shared much of my curriculum online. My most popular lessons included Graphing Stories, Stacking Cups, Will It Hit The Hoop?, and The Feltron Project. I created a style of real-world lesson plan called Three-Act Math, which a bunch of educators enjoy and a bunch of educators find totally weird. (The former group has a website clubhouse with 30,000 members.) I was very skeptical about the value of homework and I assessed students using a process that is known as Standards-Based Grading.

During my last year in the classroom, two events transformed my career. First, I was laid off from classroom teaching. Second, I gave a talk about math education that went online and has been viewed a couple of million times. (You can watch other talks I’ve given also.) Those events put me on a path to a) speak publicly about instructional change in math education in forty-nine states and four continents, and b) earn a doctorate studying with some of the best math education researchers around.

I now work for a math edtech startup called Desmos where we try to help students learn math and love learning math. I have opinions about math education technology, most of which are pessimistic, though occasionally I’m exuberant about its possibilities.

Miscellaneous:

Great Classroom Action

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Frank Noschese’s Texting While Driving:

How far does your car travel while you drive and one-handedly text “LOL” to your friend? Kids were immediately engaged. They asked questions like “How fast am I driving?” and “How long does it take to text?” I told them to assume whatever speed you wanted, we’d share out later.

Nik Doran’s Mini Feltron Project:

I set them first to the task of collecting information about how many text messages they sent over the course of a few days, and then we jumped into the idea of recording more about yourself over the Christmas holidays. I got on board as well. I anticipated some students would not have collected the data (and was unfortunately not proven wrong) so they get use my super boring data. What I did not anticipate was this.

Liisa Suurtamm & Jessica Drake’s Orangiest Orange Juice:

Although I have tried this problem several times with teachers and students and am not surprised when many of them guess which solution is the “orangiest” – I am still surprised at the variety of strategies that people use to prove this and how rich the discussion is. In this particular class the common theme in the strategies that the students used was the need to make something the “same” in order to compare. Some adjusted their ratios to find the amount of water needed for 1 cup of orange juice, others turned everything into percents so that they “were all out of 100″ and it would be easier to compare, some drew circle graphs so that their “whole” looked the same. What was nice is that many students recognized this similarity in their solutions even though they looked quite different.

Mr. Owen’s Contagion:

Generalize it! We then discussed a general form for the equation. They needed to make a connection between the R-0 number from the video and the multiplier they used to generate their charts. As soon as I brought up the question, they noticed that it was just (1 + R). At this point, my head almost exploded from awesomeness.

Nicholas Felton’s 2009 Annual Report

Nicholas Felton’s 2009 annual report has already been widely linked. I pass it along, though, with my recommendation that it’s the best of his four reports. He relinquished his usual role as data collector to the friends and acquaintances he met in 2009, asking them to respond to the same web survey and answer questions about Felton’s mood, location, activity, and conversation.

Felton’s technical feat here is astonishing. It’s challenging enough to track a data set in a spreadsheet of your creation, organized according to your own tastes. This year, Felton had to organize and visualize data no matter how his friends decided to submit it. And in spite of that loose chaos he has designed some exceptionally lucid visualizations while also experimenting a bit with form. (He used topographical maps to represent New York instead of his usual cluster plots.) I couldn’t quickly decipher his cover-page infographic but realized eventually how he was graphing the duration of his relationships across time and found the whole thing vivid and melancholy.

Felton stocks the sidebars of every page with his collaborators’ exact reports (“I think it’s funny that Nick carries a backpack.”), which is an affectionate design choice. If his previous work could be described as a staggering act of introspection, this is their equal in extrospection, a study of friends and relationships. I suspect, in ten years, this will be the one he returns to first, and most often.

BTW: See this interview with Nicholas Felton.