Did She Just Say, “Snowball fight?”

Did I catch your attention like I caught my students’ curiosity?  So what does a snowball fight have to do with math?  Let’s just say the idea came about because of its connection to three ideas: success criteria, Lorna Vazquez and hinge questions.  What could these three concepts possibly have in common that let me create a snowball fight in my classroom?  Well, let me start from the beginning.

I am a part of a TRC group that is investigating learning targets and success criteria. Our research question revolves around, “How can teachers make learning targets more visible and manageable so that students have increased awareness and invested ownership in their learning and progress?” So as a result, learning targets and success criteria are continually at the forefront of my planning as I am seeking to help students self-assess their own learning through the use of success criteria.

This brings me to Lorna Vazquez, a former TRC member. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience working with learning targets and success criteria as she has been pursuing this topic for the past ten years. Our TRC group was fortunate to meet with Lorna, who so graciously shared her time and expertise with us.  She enlightened us with many ideas, thoughts and current research. Lorna referenced DuFour’s work as a pinnacle in looking at learning targets and success criteria. She said that we should continually be asking ourselves these four questions:

  • What do we want all students to know and be able to do?
  • How will we know if they learn it?
  • How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  • How will we extend the learning for students who are already proficient?

How will we know if they learn it?  Now that is a really great question where the answer can take on many forms. This leads me to the third idea connected to the snowball fight activity, hinge questions. Lorna so eloquently explained that hinge questions are a quick assessment tool that occurs sometime during the lesson as a way to formatively check on a student’s progress towards the success criteria. It is called a hinge question because the rest of the lesson will hinge on how the students respond. This was a big “aha” moment for me.  I kept thinking about the “choose your own adventure” novels I read as a kid.  Each class is choosing the next adventure(s) with the success criteria based on their collective responses.

So now that you know how success criteria, Lorna Vazquez and hinge questions are connected. Let’s get to the snowball fight!  

In CC3, Lesson 4.1.4: What is the rule and how can we use it?, I created the snowball activity that contained my hinge question to assess if students met the success criteria for the lesson. Every lesson begins with the sharing of the learning target and explaining to the students how meeting the success criteria is their way of knowing if they met the learning target (see learning target slide below). In this lesson, the hinge question was implemented towards the end of the lesson which is where the snowball fight activity was utilized.  Remember, the direction of the entire lesson would hinge on the responses of the students. Students were asked to write down one thing they learned about the four representations we had been studying – table, graph, pattern and rule (see slide for full directions). In addition, they were asked not to put their name on the paper. Once everyone was done, the class stood in a circle and crumbled up their paper into a snowball and threw it at a peer. Ultimately all the snowballs ended up in the middle of the circle, hence the snowball fight. Students were then instructed to select one snowball to read.  There was a lot of excitement in the air for the physical part of the activity, creating the snowball and throwing it.  This hinge question activity coincided perfectly with the Wisconsin snowy day we were having!

Now for the hinge question that would give me a quick snapshot as to where students were on the continuum of learning towards the success criteria.  One person in the circle started reading what was written on his/her paper. Every student read the statement without hesitation.  I believe this was the case because they were reading someone else’s words and there was no judgment, or ownership for them because everyone in the room knew that it was someone else’s thoughts. The anonymity of the activity helped to make it successful. As the activity ensued, I knew my next step as a teacher hinged on what was read. If the statement shared was precise, the lesson would continue as planned. However, if the statement shared were vague or contained a misconception, I would need to change course to a different direction with the lesson.

The neat thing about this activity is that every statement held value. When a student read a precise statement, key details were reiterated.  However, if the statement read was a repeat of a previous one, I would just comment on how many of us were thinking alike. Also as a bonus, students received another chance to hear the same mathematical statement.  Out of all 64 responses over three classes, 41 of the statements read were precise.  

As you can see there were some vague statements and even a few misconceptions.  This is where the lesson hinged upon the question I posed.  I would need to take the learning in a new direction when these responses happened.  When we came upon a vague statement, I would ask the class, “This is a great start, how could we build upon this statement to make it even clearer?  At this point, someone in the class would respond and elaborate on what was stated.  The exciting part was, many statements were given before, and if the student who wrote the vague response did not know the “full details”, they would now know how to make a more precise statement because  they heard them in a prior “snowball statement.” The other great part about this activity was the anonymity of each statement.  As for the two misconception statements, they too provided a great base to build upon.  As a class, we just needed to fine tune the details.  Again the students took care of that with my open-ended start of…”I love this statement, but there is one piece of it that needs a little tweak.  Can anyone help with that detail?”  I always had multiple students who would respond to this and clear up the misconception as a class while preserving and protecting the identity of the student who wrote it.  

After the activity was finished, I collected “the snowballs” so that I could remember what key details I needed to emphasize in the upcoming lesson to ensure that every student was hearing these types of statements again. I also learned my ability to write hinge questions is a work in progress. Looking at it now, I can see a better way to craft the question to meld better with the success criteria.  Using this exact question would have been better served in a later lesson which pulls all the ideas of y = mx + b together.  My first attempt at implementing a hinge question was a success in my assessment.  Every student wrote down a response, shared someone else’s response, elaborated on what was stated, listened and shared joy while in the midst of the “snowball fight.” Students also got to hear the same type of statement multiple times by different voices.  Another positive aspect of this activity was that students could hear how to make vague statements more precise and that any misconceptions could be cleared up immediately.  This was a powerful activity and worthwhile on many levels in terms of student learning and my lesson planning for the following day.  I would say it was a perfect winter day in the state of Wisconsin to have a mathematical snowball fight.

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