Here in our first period, I am in a PreCalculus class, and our students are working on a long term project on Debt and Investments.   Azer tells me his group is working on an investment analysis, including a excel spreadsheet showing long term returns from different choices, and a brochure explaining the pros and cons of different kinds of investments.    Our teacher comes over to Azer’s group to review their drafted brochure.    She gives feedback on word choices, font design, capitalization.  She asks them about the differences of common and preferred stocks, and they converse about ways to make that clear, the pros and cons of different stocks.
Other students are working projects analysing  credit card debts.  One student calls out to Amy from across the room– when we interview someone for this project, how long should we talk to them?  Amy answers “Until they walk away,” and then explains further that it depends on how much they have to say.
As I understand it, all HTH teachers are required to build their own digital portfolios, in the same way that students must, and they must similarly conduct their own “action research.”  Amy’s teacher site speaks of her research on the challenge of meeting High Tech High’s expectation that via project based learning, all subject matter be made relevant to students, and the particular challenge of making high school math relevant.   I sympathize– on my visits to schools, it is most often in my observations the math classes that are most detached from kids’ lives and interests.   But to Amy’s credit she has pressed ahead, and has written here about her initiatives to make math meaningful.
Looking around the room again, students are very engaged, leaning over laptops together working on their projects, the exhibitions of which are due Friday.  Amy has told them they should be feeling a little pressure, and “working your tails off” for the exhibitions.   It is interesting– students do respond, we all do, to the right amount of pressure– too much is unhealthy to be sure, but too little pressure has its own faults, and it seems our teacher here is trying to find the right balance.   Amy is looking closely now at Azer and his partner’s very comprehensive, large, spreadsheet, and asking good questions about it, forcing her students to defend and explain their choices for how this excel works.   She asks them to cite their sources, and reason aloud how they arrived at these answers.   They are comparing Treasury bonds, Municipal bonds, annuities, etc., with good sophistication.    I really like the questions she is asking, and attention she is giving them, and I start thinking about the problem of rampant cheating in high schools.   In this kind of format, students doing comprehensive projects with public exhibitions and one-on-one defenses, how could they cheat?    These students are being held accountable in a myriad of ways, and cheating just wouldn’t make sense in this format.
Amy is reviewing with them the rubric for their project, being wonderfully friendly, encouraging, and blunt– good on the math, but the brochure is a mess, you need to get on this, and finish that.    The rubric has categories for the project brainstorm, the math employed, the public education involved, and the final product.
Amy takes a minute to say hello to me, and we discuss the challenge, the high challenge, of making high school math relevant and meaningful.  I compliment her for her project based approach, and contrast it to math that is taught just for the SAT test; she tells me, rightfully, that she does have to balance things in her approach, and sometimes she just really needs to teach the kids things they will have to know for freshman (college) calculus– and “it might not seem interesting to them, but they will be screwed freshman year if they don’t know it.”   It is a good reality check she provides me, and I appreciate it.     Lot more I could learn about how she does this.   Here is a course outline, showing the projects the students do and the math skills they learn.

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