Parallel Projects

Sometimes, integration of subjects for projects is just a bit contrived.

Take the project (projects?) we just finished.  My teaching partner, Megan, wanted to have students engage in The Moth – a project where they tell a story from their own experience, without notes, live.   Every humanities course in our school did the same project at the same time, culminating in a school-wide event on a Friday evening, at nex+Gen.   Students were the story tellers, as you might be able to tell from the photo above.   The concept is fantastic, and I embraced it immediately after Megan made the suggestion.

But what to do about science and math integration?   Should the students tell stories about math?  Their experiences saving the whales?  Seemed a bit, well, limiting, what with the lack of whales in NM.    Nonetheless, we proceeded; the action of having all the students doing the same sort of project at all grade levels is just too awesome to let my trepidations about our integration, or lack thereof, get in the way.

Despite the lack of any obvious connection to math or science, my mind still rolled it over and over, considering how to integrate with The Moth.   In math we’d dealt with binomial distributions, and the next logical topic was normal distributions, and using them to find probabilities.    Stories about finding probabilities?   Mmmmmmm.  Riveting.

At the same time we launched the project in our classroom, it turns out that I was in the last stages of preparing for a TEDxABQ talk.   Part of the preparation for a TEDx talk includes a lot of rehearsal and coaching sessions, where the organizers remind you of  the time that you are given, and the time that you use, with no small number of threats about going over your limit.   During one of the coaching sessions, one of the coaches mentioned a number of words that should correspond to 6 minutes.    I forgot the value he gave, but what I do remember is that a time limit means a word limit.  Of course, that word limit will vary, depending upon a person’s rate of speech.

Ah ha! “Depending upon a person’s rate of speech.”   I figure variation in the rate of speaking might be the sort of thing that is fairly random, so if you took some data of people talking, you might get a normal distribution.   My own data-taking with TED Talks online revealed that, in fact, speaking rates were pretty dang close to a normal distribution, and reasonable enough to proceed. (sample size = 21 speakers.  Mean speaking rate = 170.5 words per minute).

Since students were given a window of 5-7 minutes for their stories, the idea seemed rather applicable.   So… what if students find the number of words that a speaker can say in the time for TED talk, or the Moth?   Or what if they find the time it takes to speak a certain number of words?    With those questions, the stats project was born, and students quickly set to recording each other speaking, or listening to recordings in order to determine the most understandable rate, or watching TED Talks online, measuring both time and word count.   As fun (and they were really into it) as that was, it was not really integrated into their preparation for the Moth – rather, it was done parallel to The Moth, and students saw that it had some application.   The final products would be different: for English, there would be a performance, and for math, a sort of lab report detailing their findings.   We found that the math took a bit longer to finish, so the products were not even due on the same day, but within a week of each other.   

Several of the students determined probabilities that could be used by future teachers and students as they plan their stories.  For example, one group found that if someone had a 900 word speech, there is a 67% chance that it would last between 5 and 7 minutes.   Another group created an online calculator for TED organizers, to allow them to calculate the probabilities of word ranges for a given time.

Thus we had two projects and two products, inspired by the whole-school activity, both authentic, and both engaging.  It felt much better to go this route of parallel projects than to contrive a scenario where both subjects got crammed together into some sort of lurching frankenproduct.   I’m certain the villagers were happier this way.

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