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.”.


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.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. History connection: have them make a feltron report for a historical figure, or a day in the life of a person from x time period (civil war soldier).

    Literature connection: read a story that relates a day of someone’s life—what would their feltron report be? What would that character choose as their most important statistics to be tracked? What would other characters say about what they would pick? What does the difference tell you about the relationship between those two characters?

    Too bad you can’t teach them Joyce’s Ulysses. Heh. It’s the most famous “day in the life” in literature that I can think of. They say Joyce was obsessive about recreating the world of Dublin on June 16, 1904. So much so that he would scour old maps, newspapers, etc to make sure he was correctly referencing Dublin exactly as it would have been on that day.

    Maybe go the opposite route—Smith magazine has this thing it does: six word stories. Can you take a six word story (My ex had a better lawyer) and blow it out to a Feltron report?

    Somehow there’s a better writing connection: given a dummy feltron report, can they write a story that would match it?

    Hmmmm. Very interesting.

  2. I’m not sold on the history connection — the big sell of this project is that students are doing a personal project. With history, you’d have to spoon-feed most of the details.

    I might adapt this for World War I, perhaps. The only thing I can think of is making them tally a mark for every casualty in a given day. Of course, having them make 20,000 tallies in 60 minutes would make them all pacifists.

    Maybe it is a good idea.

  3. Dan,

    I’ve just used Twitter a micro-blogging web app to inform you that I have a teacher in my bldg who would be more than willing to collaborate with you on this in the future (or possibly present…he’s that adventurous).

    @Ben: I still can’t click on your direct link. I’ll just keep using your name.

  4. You may want to look into this cool software called Tinkerplots which is great for analyzing lots of data and finding different trends. It’s better for use with data that isn’t necessarily time dependent, but if you’re creative (making months & days variables) – you can do some great stuff.

    You can download an instructor’s evaluation copy here:

  5. You’ve thought about this already, I’m sure. But when I implement a version of this next New Year’s as a means of really making sense of “resolutions” (cough. sorry. my plagiarism’s acting up again.) the whole point will be to have kids

    a) convey– in writing– various inferences from their own data; and

    b) synthesize and support– in writing– resolutions for the New Year based on their inferences.

    These resolutions need not be global, demanding, tritely romantic, or even change-based at all. (Imposed sweeping goal-setting is rampant in education, stinks, and kids see through it from a mile away.)

    Resolutions just need to come right from the kid, demonstrate critical thinking, be well-supported by the results, and (here’s a kicker) *achievable*– the quality of which must also be demonstrated via data interp. (“I read an average of 5 books a month, and I’d like to continue this pattern, so for 2009 I will make a resolution to read 60 books.”)

    For your older guys, I might simply give a written reflection assignment: Ok, now you know something about yourselves. What are you going to DO with it?

    Perhaps there’s an English teacher in the bldg who’d be willing to work up a rubric with you to evaluate the reflection as a written piece of work. (Do you teach on a team?) I’d bet you a million bucks she’s already got something worked up that would apply. And the kids will give that wonderful groan and say, “But Mrs. So and So already DID this with us…” and that’s when you laugh evilly and say something snarky about how EVERY class is English class.

    The reflection could go right in the front of a folder that also includes the notebooks and the final information design product. That’s the sort of thing kids hold onto for the rest of their lives.

    Sorry for the length here…

  6. dan –

    got me out from the shadows on this one. fascinating project!

    big question 1: don’t you already cover assessment of all their core math skills with your quiz policy? (how math must assess). given that, i’d suggest going to excel.

    going to excel also helps answer question number 2 – i know you feel class time is sacrosanct, but perhaps you could find time every month or so to have them all on a computer, typing their numbers into a spreadsheet? or at the very least encourage them to put their numbers into some form of digital backup.

    re: connections between language and math on this project. i think it’s enough for your math students to turn a set of data into a 800 word report. that’ll be quite hard for them to do well, i suspect you’ll find.

    but when it comes to other disciplines, like baxter says, the richness of this project lies in the strong personal connection between student and data. obviously if you’re reading a diary that makes it eminently feasible – eg, diary of anne frank.

    it might be enough of an interdisc connection for a history class to simply turn the project on its head – give a written narrative of an event, find the data to create a feltron report about it. however that could also be difficult b/c it requires extremely strong research skills…

    hermmm…i’m going to keep on thinking on this. thanks, dan.

  7. When I threw out the history suggestion, I actually was thinking of a database my school subscribes to called Daily Life Online. It provides an overview of daily life for all different kinds of groups from various historical eras. The history idea wouldn’t work unless you gave them very specific sources; otherwise, the task would be completely overwhelming. But what creating a Feltron Report functioned as a sort of comprehension check for reading a biography or brief overview of a historical figure?

    Another thing I’ve got rattling around is my latest favorite English buzzword: the text set. It’s the “fancy” name for the group of auxiliary readings that relate back to the main piece of literature. A good one not only provides background (so a reading on Stalin if you’re tackling Animal Farm), but could also include thematically related poems or short stories. Couldn’t you tell a lot about how much a student understood if they could pull together information from the various sources into one Feltron Report?

    I need to stop playing with the big boys…but it makes sense in my head as a way to think about judging understanding and learning from a variety of sources. A kind of visual map of how they are putting it all together?

  8. As big a fan of information presentation as you are, I’m sure you have probably seen the poster of Napoleon’s March by Charles Joseph Minard that Edward Tufte analyzes, While I’m not sure if the students should take the poster and turn it into a Feltron Report (although they could), it certainly can offer motivation for the power of information display.

    PS I’m going to do this with my 6th grader at home as a supplemental experiment. Thanks for all your great ideas.

  9. That Napoleon’s March poster is fantastic. My grandfather had a huge print of that up in his office for years. Great suggestion for inspiration.

    Another possibility is making the exercise macroscopic. Benjamin touched on that in part, but I would probably have students tracking trends over weeks, or months, or years. The casualty rates by country along a shared time line of a war would be one example. It might be interesting to observe the spikes and valleys as countries entered the war, had internal revolutions, etc.

    While not exactly what I described, Wikipedia actually has a pretty well constructed graph on overall casualties during World War II. I’m sure much, much more can be done with this kind of stuff.

  10. I am down for trying this next year (with Algebra 1, who need to study statistics and incorporate a computer project, anyway). I like the ownership of deciding on their own variables and tracking them over time. I think for the rest of this year, I will do it for myself so that I have it to show them. I’ve also noticed that I can pull much information from my credit card records without even trying that hard.

    In the past, we have done a project where we collect all the data in one day (sit ups per minute, favorite color, how many TV’s in your house, travel time to school, etc etc), and then in groups of 3-4 they spend around 4 days turning 3 different data sets into appropriate statistical charts and calculating measures of central tendency. Then delivered as a presentation with analysis over 1-2 days. (We invite other teachers and the principal and serve refreshments. Much fun is had by all.)

    I’m more enthusiastic about making them do at least one graphical depiction with a computer (Excel or whatever), because even though they are so “tech savvy”, being able to send a text message without looking isn’t exactly a marketable skill. Being able to quickly compare how different types of graphs can distort or enhance features of the data is really cool, and I think does get them “down and dirty” with the math. I think you’ll be a bit surprised at how many have never used Excel before, and need lots of direct instruction about how to effectively organize their data in a spreadsheet so that they will be able to turn it into a chart. I typed up detailed instructions for several types of graphs using Excel, email me if you want them. You’re also welcome to my project description and rubric.

    Now to go order a copy of the Feltron report…

  11. The Lincoln Museum in Springfield has an **amazing** video that shows casualties and occupied land over the course of the entire Civil War…and the whole thing lasts 4 minutes. I’ve looked, but I don’t think it’s on youtube…but it is an amazing blast of information presented graphically in a very short period of time.

  12. My 6th grade students are discussing a philosophical question each week based on a certain philosopher’s work. This weeks question was “Should you ever tell a lie?” based on the work of Immanuel Kant. Homework? Each student got a Liars Journal and had to record every lie they told for a week. We’ll see how honest they are when I see them Wed.

  13. Obliged for the suggestions, though I’ll reiterate Benjamin’s comment that the allure of the thing is that it’s all about them. They are their homework.

    So feel free to ape this project for some biographical information design of the life of some Baroque author. I don’t think it’ll have quite the same feel, but I’m interested in your results all the same.

  14. Dan,

    I just stumbled upon your blog today. What great things you are doing in your classroom! The kids are fortunate to have you as their teacher. And thank you for sharing your work with the global teaching community.

    I especially love this Feltron Project idea. I decided that I am going to introduce it to my students tomorrow as a replacement for the usual project we do in Statistics. We’ll see how it goes; but I think it’ll work out great. I love the open-ended nature of it. And how can you relate more to the kids’ lives than this?!

    Keep up the good work, sir!


  15. Hi Dan

    Perhaps this will help:

    It shows various charts in Excel for different purposes: eg: comparison, trend etc. AND it has templates that you can download and use with your own data.

    I recently saw this one too:
    Scroll half way down the page to the OCD project. This guy categorised and counted every single item in his bedroom! It would be something you could adapt to the kids. For example, choose something they all have, like items under their bed (?). Have them decide on categories common to the group and then tally their items. Then do the info design to compare/segment the whole group based on their tallies across categories, gender etc.

    Finally, and although not directly relevant to your project, you might also like this link, the images that Stephanie produced from analysis of a Kerouac text.


  16. Tim, thanks for the resources. I’d heard of the first but not the second two.

    I assume you came from Christian Long’s think:lab. His last post said I needed some fix-it advice on this project, which is true. I hope you’ll swing back by later this week for my reflections on this project, which, at various times was kind of awful, and could use your input.

  17. Great idea. I’ve modified this project and we are doing it in my Geometry and Algebra 2 classes now. The modifications are that 1.) It is a group project, so everyone records data on the same variable and one person (Data Manager) from the group is responsible for updating the information to a google docs spreadsheet on a weekly basis. (The Quality Control person collects the data from the different members weekly and makes sure that only the proper data is submitted to the Data Manager. Also, they have the first week to change what they are tracking if they find it to difficult to track. The idea is no one has homework on Thursday/Friday if all the groups are turning in data in a timely fashion.