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Q&A with Suzanne Alejandre: Understanding Problem Solving in the Classroom

Can you share a story about a student or teacher engaging with a PoW and what you liked about it so much?

It’s hard to pick just one story but since I’ve been watching the videos that we took last May at Christopher Columbus Charter School I was reminded of one of my favorite PoWs to present to learners of all ages. It’s called Eating Grapes – you can find it using the problem number 4507. It’s a Math Fundamentals PoW but I also wrote A Cranberry Craving [Problem #3284] as a PreAlgPoW version — same problem with a slightly different story. In both cases the kids often wonder why Angela (or Carissa) eat so many grapes (or so many cranberries)!

This problem is perfect to use just the Scenario and tell the kids, “I’m going to read you a story!” And then once you’ve read the scenario aloud, ask the students, “What did you hear?” I love having ALL students involved from the outset and this technique has never failed me.

Another reason this problem is one of my favorites is because of the variety of methods that can be used to solve it. We’ve included six different methods in the Teacher Packet [PDF] and there could easily be more. One of my favorite solutions was presented by two students in the fourth grade at Christopher Columbus Charter School. I included the video clip in this blog entry: Owning It

If you could get teachers to take away one important aspect of the PoWs, what would it be?

I am happy when teachers focus their students more on the “process” of problem solving rather than just being quickly over and done with a PoW. Using the Scenario [pdf] link is how I think of starting the process. Having students go online to submit just their I Notice, I Wonder ™ responses is a great second step. Having students talk about the problem and then submit a draft of their solution online is a third step. And the process can continue with teacher online feedback and reflection/revision. An ultimate goal is to have students return to their online work later in the year to view their electronic portfolio of problem solving!

Notice and Wonder™ is a frequent theme in both your blog and the free scenarios. How important is this to problem solving?

It’s very important because it evens the playing field for all students. Students who normally would say “I don’t get it” and put their heads down or act out and disrupt the classroom, don’t do that – instead they’re engaged. Students (not as many but there’s always at least one or two) who race to find the answer and then they’re done, can’t do that — there’s no question yet! So, using I Notice, I Wonder™ has the effect of engaging all students in the problem solving process.

What did you have the most fun working on as part of your job at the MF in the last 2 months?

I’d have to say that the EnCoMPASS Summer Institute was the most fun. When we host an institute I always have memories of the first Math Forum Institute I attended as a participant in 1995. I enjoy helping the participants feel comfortable and to help them make the most out of the experience.

What are you looking forward to most this upcoming year?

September 28 is the date that I’m most looking forward to because it’s the date that our book, Powerful Problem Solving: Activities for Sense-Making with the Mathematical Practices should be in our hands! Max Ray has written such a friendly and accessible book that I think will give teachers a real sense of how to make the most of the PoWs with their students. I’m going to be first in line to get my copy autographed by Max!