Heidi Wall (nee Cline) ’94, grew up as a “fac brat” as the daughter of Faculty Emeriti Andy and Jennie Cline. She joined the department in Fall 2013 after teaching at the Shady Side Academy, North Yarmouth Academy, Andover Summer Session, and Deerfield Academy. She also developed educational technology software for schools with Schoolwires (now part of Blackboard) based in Pittsburgh.
This spring, Heidi’s Geometry class invited Laila Bailout of the History and Social Sciences department to lecture on Islamic Art and History. Heidi asked me if I was interested in learning more about the project. Below is an excerpt from my interview with Heidi as she reflects on the project and charts next steps.
JJ: Have you always been a projects-oriented teacher?
HW: I think I have. I have always been interested in opportunities to involve the real world, to show students why math is so important, and ultimately how it all connects.
JJ: I find projects to be a challenge. How do you incorporate it into your curriculum?
HW: I used to think that I had to directly connect the project topic to what we were learning in class. However, I don’t place as much importance on that anymore. I have learned to lighten up. In fact, recently when I was asking students to build solids in Calculus class to measure volume, we first had to think about the concept of scale. I then used what they built to stoke their curiosity about cross-sections through layering pieces of cardboard.
JJ: It sounds like you have loosened up on your expectations. What made you deviate from the prime directive of teaching linearly? Okay, let me put it this way. Do you feel that it’s your experience from being in the classroom for over a decade or getting comfortable with the material that has made you rethink the way you teach?
HW: I think it all goes back to the concept of final exams. For example, in Geometry (Math 210), the last week of classes is not the end of the course. There is another trimester worth of material before Geometry is fully covered. So there is a natural opportunity to introduce a project and try something different. Even after the AP exam in calculus, there are more and more teachers who are embracing projects. This means students are getting out of the traditional classroom setting, engaging with each other, and being creative – in a mathematics class! Sadly, there are not as many opportunities to be creative in the mathematics classroom since many of us are tied to a textbook and walking them through a well-defined curriculum. I think it’s not all about the final exam. It’s not all about one test. If we can create a variety of experiences, that is projects, tests, homework, and explorations, it will ultimately better serve the students.
JJ: I heard that you are interested in exploring portfolio-based assessments. Can you talk more about this?
HW: Sure. It really goes back to what Alan November says, “who owns the learning?” I think we need to shift some of the responsibility of learning onto students.
JJ: You mean, you expect students to learn things by themselves?
HW: Not exactly. What I mean is that we need to teach students to demonstrate their learning. It’s a shared responsibility. A test or a quiz is just one way to demonstrate learning and unfortunately, it’s very high stakes and captures only a snapshot of what they actually know.
JJ: I remember in college I had to verbally explain what I was doing up at the chalkboard. That was scary, but the act of talking through the mathematics made me really think about what I was doing.
HW: Exactly. Portfolio-based assessment is about logging the thinking process. Maybe a student doesn’t exactly understand how to do a problem at first, but over time and/or after multiple attempts or through approaching the problem from a different perspective they eventually get it. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a technological solution that could allow students to journal their thinking? A way to track their progress and demonstrate to the instructor the learning that occurred over time?
JJ: I totally agree. I often see students erasing their incorrect solutions or throwing out their scrap paper. But that stuff is like DaVinci’s sketchbook. Okay, back to projects. Why do you think there is so much inertia against projects?
HW: I think it’s hard to make a project rigorous in content – that may explain some of the hesitation for some teachers. As math teachers, we value content and demonstrating an understanding of topics taught over a period of time. So projects tend to be intrinsically less rigorous when we first try them out in the classroom. However, it does allow us to tap into other areas that we have trouble assessing in a traditional classroom setting such as creativity and problem-solving. Tests are high-stakes by nature and when you ask a student a question from left field on a test, it puts too much pressure on them. But on a project, you can ask a question that is extremely hard and through working in groups, students can see the multiple ways of solving a problem.
JJ: What’s up next?
HW: I am thinking of taking my students to the Addison to look at the Convergence exhibition. There’s an awesome piece on exhibit right now in which the artist uses light projected from inside a cube to create this cool shadow effect. I want my students to look at the shadows, see how they move about and think through how they can turn this into a 2D or 3D project using the laser cutter in the Nest.
JJ: Maybe we could display something in Morse?
HW: I was thinking, maybe the stairwell? Hey, what is that stuff on the walls called anyway? The weird wood stuff.
JJ: Ha! I don’t know! Last question – what was the one take away from this project?
HW: My approach has always been, “we are going to do this together. I am going to learn along with you.” I was initially worried – I thought this project was going to be very stressful for the students. Surprisingly, what I discovered was that it was NOT at all stressful for them. Many of the students actually commented that the act of drawing was very therapeutic for them.
JJ: Thanks so much, Heidi. This was an awesome project and I am blown away by what your students created. Thank you for sharing!
More about Heidi Wall.