Planting Seeds with Precision

I had a great experience this summer attending Carol Ann Tomlinson's week long differentiation workshop.  One of the things she taught that resonated with me was that we have to plant seeds with precision at the beginning of the school year in order to have the desired outcome at the end of the year.  She did this by showing us a series of pictures of a rice field where rice grew into a work of art.

While reflecting on the upcoming school year and thinking about how we will achieve success with the standards, I came up with four seeds that I wanted to plant from day 1 in my classroom.  
1)  Learning mathematics is learning how to problem solve.  Mathematics is the language to make sense of a problem (understanding magnitude, challenges and barriers that arise in different situations) and having the ability to find a solution (with prior knowledge, resources, tools, creativity and people).
2)  Students will become decision makers.  I want students to solve a problem with purpose.  Why are we solving problems?  What do their solutions tell us?
3)  Collaboration is necessary.  We might be able to plug and chug independently, but in order to have a deeper understanding, we have to invite others into our learning process.
4)  We're going to create quality work for a broader audience than just student and teacher.

In order to plant these seeds, I wanted students to be solving math problems on the first day.  I wanted them to be curious and ask questions.  I wanted to tell a story to spark interest.  I wanted their voices to matter in the classroom.  I created this lesson with these same rice field pictures and invited them to plant seeds of precision with me.
I showed students one picture at a time and asked them what they saw.  When we got to the final picture, I asked students what questions they had.  The each wrote a question on the wall and we talked about them together.  They asked some great questions and expanded the conversation to be more than I anticipated.  Here's some of the things they wanted to know:
  • Where is this?
  • What language is that?
  • Why is there a road in the middle?
  • How big is the field?
  • How many people did it take to plant that?
  • Why is there a wave?
  • How did they get the different colors?
  • What plant is that?
  • How many plants are in the field?
  • how was this picture taken?
Some of the questions I knew from doing some research ahead of time and others I didn't know the answer to.  The story is fascinating.  These fields of art are in a village of about 8,000 people in Japan.  In the 80's the city was struggling financially.  They decided to generate income by creating an amusement park.  The park failed and this tiny village found themselves in a lot of debt.  In 1993 some people wanted to honor the history of rice that had been grown in the region for over 2,000 years.  They planted rice so that it would grow into a work of art.  Since then, they've improved their designs and this tiny village attracts 150,000 people per year who want to see these fields.  
Now that students are interested in this real place with real people and a real story, I posed this real problem.  In 2010, the village was 106 million dollars in debt.  It costs them $35,000 to rent the land and they generated $70,000 in donations.  At this rate, when will they get out of debt?  This problem was pretty easy for Algebra 1 students to solve. It was a great starting point for dusting off the cobwebs from the summer and getting back into problem solving mode.  The next question was really fun.  I asked them, since the village attracts 150,000 people every year, what should they do to get out of debt?  Here were some of their suggestions:
  • Charge cars as they come into the village
  • Sell water and food on the side of the road
  • Sell t-shirts, key chains, post cards and other touristy items
  • Market the art viewing to attract even more people
  • Buy the land instead of rent it
  • Find out what pictures people want to see created
We ended the lesson with a conversation about what this story means for us.  The village gathered together with volunteers to plant rice.  We're going to collaborate throughout the year with partners, groups and the class as a whole.  We talked about the process of planting seeds, watching them grow, seeing the art and finally harvesting the rice by color.  Learning math is a process.  While their grade might be a snapshot of the year, just like a photograph of the art, hopefully they're taking a lot more from the class than just a grade.  Failure is important to the learning process.  This town had a failed amusement park, but what resulted from their failure is an attraction that brings more people than this tiny village ever imagined.  We'll make mistakes this year, but that creates an opportunity for us to grow.  And finally we talked about producing quality work.  This village has to be very precise with their planting in order to have a work of art with sharing with the world.  What can we produce this year that is worth sharing?
The cool thing about this story is that there are so many math questions to ask.  I could see revisiting this story throughout the school year and in other math classes as well.  Geometry classes could talk about scale factor.  There are a lot of rate questions to ask pertaining to money and the number of visitors each year.  I followed up the next day with these facts:  In 2007, 700 volunteers planted rice and in 2010, 1200 volunteers planted rice.  I posed the question: In 2019 as a graduation trip, you decide to go to Japan to help plant rice.  At this rate, how many people will you be planting rice with?  I don't know if the relationship is linear or not.  My algebra 1 students assumed it was, because they don't know any other kind of relation, yet.  Since this question focused on volunteers, it created an opportunity to ask how students would contribute to our class this year.
The challenge for the rest of the year is to keep telling stories and asking questions that matter in order to help these seeds grow.