Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Problem Solving in Stories with Nicole Griffin

N. (or Nicole) Griffin is the author of the new young reader series featuring Smashie McPerter and her friend Dontel. In the first book, Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11, the two search for who stole the class hamster after it goes missing under the reign of a vain substitute teacher at a time when the class is already miffed that Smashie considers hamsters creepy.

Nicole is also a math education consultant and so it shouldn't surprise us that she started her workshops on problem solving in stories with a math problem. Take a few minutes to consider it:

Now, a few more minutes to consider how did you go about solving this problem?

1. Deal with your feelings.

Some choice comments from the audience on their first reaction to the assignment "Flash backs of horror"; "sweaty palms"; "Relief at not having to share the answers out loud"; "happy because I used to really love math and never do it any more" (followed almost instantly by the discovery that you can forget a lot of math in a few short decades).

The dealing with your feelings phase often gets forgotten in teaching kids about problem solving. Nonetheless, if you're feeling anxious, discouraged, cocky, etc. that impedes your problem solving. Sometimes the feelings part gets forgotten with fictional problem solvers too (particularly odd since emotions usually make stories interesting). Think of Sherlock Holmes who rarely had to deal with his feelings.

2. Make sense of the problem

Making sense of the problem means not just reading it, but using tools like drawing visuals (shapes to represent the paintings for example) or identifying key parts to grasp what you're reading. In mysteries, it's common for investigators to talk over the problems confronting them as ways of making sense. In Smashie McPerter, Smashie and her friend Dontel fill notebooks with their outlines of trying to understand the key parts of the missing hamster problem.

3. Solve the problem

Workshop participants all went about solving the paintings problems in different ways - the blunt instrument of arithmetic (adding prices until you reached the set amount); trying to find an equation from the dim recesses of memory; etc. Often this solving involves false steps that send you back to #1. In Smashie, for example, the kids run through possible suspects and need to return to their notebooks each time they find evidence that one of their suspects can't have taken the hamster.

4. Explain your thinking.

In the math problem handed out at the workshop the test writer specifically requested "show your work." In the world of mysteries, the climactic speech by the sleuth explaining how she deduced what happened (I picture Angela Lansbury here) and caught the perpetrator is a nearly unavoidable plot point.

5. Check your work.

Double checking is, of course, a constant part of the problem solving process and Jane points out that when the kids in Smashie make a false accusation there are real consequences. This is not a problem solving duo who can point fingers until they happen upon the guilty party.

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When we lay out basic problem solving structure and look at it through the lens of writing for kids, mysteries are an obvious choice for illustrating this skill. They're engaging stories built around a problem to be solved. They're a more fun way of understanding curriculum goals like CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 - which Nicole shared at the workshop:
CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution. They analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals. They make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution and plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt. They consider analogous problems, and try special cases and simpler forms of the original problem in order to gain insight into its solution. They monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary. Older students might, depending on the context of the problem, transform algebraic expressions or change the viewing window on their graphing calculator to get the information they need. Mathematically proficient students can explain correspondences between equations, verbal descriptions, tables, and graphs or draw diagrams of important features and relationships, graph data, and search for regularity or trends. Younger students might rely on using concrete objects or pictures to help conceptualize and solve a problem. Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, "Does this make sense?" They can understand the approaches of others to solving complex problems and identify correspondences between different approaches.
Not all children's mysteries are created equal and hit the balance of entertaining storytelling and strong problem solving, like what we find in Smashie McPerter. Jane suggests this list to get started:

Julian, Secret AgentCameron, Ann9780394819495Random HouseOct 20082-4
The Book ScavengerChambliss Bertman, Jennifer9781627791151Henry HoltJune 20154-6
The Clubhouse Mysteries Draper, Sharon9781442427099AlladinJuly 20112-4series
Operation BunnyGardner, Sally9781250050533Square FishSept 20142-4series
Smashie McPerterGriffin, N9780763661458CandlewickFeb 2015series
Adventures of Arnie the DonutKeller, Laurie9781250072498Square FishMay 20152-4series
Nancy Clancy Super SleuthO'Connor, Jane9780062084194HarperApril 20132-4series
Greetings From SomewhereParis, Harper9781442497184SimonJan 20141-3series
The Case of the Missing MoonstoneStratford, Jordan9780385754408KnopfJan 20153-6series
Secrets of Selkie BayThomas, Shelley Moore9780374367497Farrar, Strauss GirouxJuly 20153-6
Whodunit Detective AgencyWidmark, Martin9780448480664Grosset & DunlapOct 20141-3series

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Don't forget on Saturday, November 7th, we've got another educators workshop coming up with Linda Urban and Melissa Guerrette - learn about their unique collaboration around teaching writing and revision in the classroom as Linda worked on her fun new children's book Milo Speck: Accidental Agent.

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