One of the benefits I reap from working with the Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI) is that I find out about blogs (and other resources!) that the participants have. This morning a 2011 Secondary School Teachers Program (SSTP) participant alerted me to her new blog. She’s named her blog Pi Crust | An accomplished novice wonders about the challenges of depth over breadth. Cool name but also an intriguing short description. I was enticed to read! Her entry about Mr. Benson reminded me of an idea I used in my middle school classroom a little more than a decade ago.

Before I describe that idea…here’s a little background.

Memory 1: Between 1995 and 2000 I attended several Math Forum Summer Institutes where I was introduced to the idea of starting each Institute day with Connections. “Connections is a time when individuals in a group gather to focus, collect, and even share thoughts.” During one of those scheduled reflection times I remember thinking about the importance of celebration in the classroom.  I wondered to myself what could I start in my classroom to celebrate learning. Could I create a celebration that was long enough to create the feeling that I wanted to achieve but not so long that I would be hesitant to use it?

Memory 2: Going in to my first Math Forum Summer Institute, tessellations were a passion of mine. At that point in my classroom teaching career I was teaching computers (and Newspaper) and had developed a tessellation lesson for the students to learn more about HyperCard but I couldn’t resist having them experience some math while they did that!

So…back to my celebration idea. What I thought of doing was use my love of tessellations, the circular physical arrangement from Connections, and woven through it the valuing of both the individual and the group. I bought two sets of Escher Foam Lizards puzzles — each piece is about 3 inches in length. I still have the puzzles — here’s a photo of some of the pieces that I arranged on my desk just now:

Escher Foam Puzzle Pieces

In my mind the students (there were 31 in that class!) would stand in a circle each holding one lizard puzzle piece. In the middle of the circle there would be a table and the students would quietly place their pieces one-by-one on the table and together the puzzle would be completed. Ten students have placed their pieces:

ten Escher puzzle pieces connected

If you are a middle school teacher reading this (and, in particular, work in a Title 1 school with a challenging population, as I did) you may be thinking — did she really DO that! Did it take a day to pull it off? Good grief!

I’ll be honest. No, I never managed to do it. One challenge was that my classroom was a computer lab and while I had managed to arrange things so that the tables/computers were in clusters, there still just wasn’t enough floor space to have anything close to a circle. I think if I had started in September with a small activity to work up to this culminating celebration, by February or March it might have started working…but…I didn’t do that. And, the next year I had left the classroom.

But, I still LOVE the idea and reading Allison’s blog this morning brought all of the memories back of why I think celebration, valuing, and creating both individual strength and group strength in a classroom has such value.