Monday, October 18, 2010

Alexander's Fax Machine

I've been meaning to share some activities from this year...both successes and failures not-so-successes.  Here's an activity I did on the second day of school.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but if he wanted to “fax” something, he would have to describe in detail the item to be replicated to someone else on the other end of the telephone.  You and your face partner will replicate this.
1.     Everyone should build a wall so your image to be copied and work can’t be seen by your partner.
2.     I will give the window partner a manila folder that has parts cut out.
3.     You and your partner will talk to one another (nothing allowed other than talking…definitely no peeking) and the door partner will attempt to replicate the shape.  The door partner also can’t show her window partner her progress.
4.     Once the door partner has a sketch on paper, she will cut out a manila folder.
5.     Once you have checked and rechecked, show each other your result and see how you did.
6.     Reflect on this process:
How’d you do?
What went well?
What did not go well?
What was hard?
What tools would have made this easier?
What would you do differently next time?

Examples (two columns of originals on the left):
Take away:
language is important
precision is important
articulating confusion is important
checking is important
collaborating and listening is important

Overheard during discussions:
How far from, how big, how long/short, tools for measuring: inches, cm, finger width, nametag width, diagonal, vertical, horizontal, landscape, triangle, isosceles, up/down, positive/negative space, hamburger/hot dog, line, left/right, corner, gap, arrow, width, slope, NW, ___ degree angle, curving, squiggly, acute, obtuse, points
Reflection: * I didn't create the original puzzles with any specific shapes or language in mind...maybe something to think about in the future. * Most students found this super challenging, but I didn't see any of the normal math anxiety that can rear its ugly head. The lack of numbers have anything to do with this? A sense of no black and white right & wrong answer but instead a spectrum of close to far?
*When we switched roles and did this a second time every pair felt better about how they did.  
*I chose not to quantify "how well they did. Felt ok about this decision.

I gained a good bit of insight from their subsequent homework, Alien Encounter.

While I considered this activity a success, I'd still love your thoughts and/or feedback.


  1. I like this! I had kids at the freeschool do this activity with pattern blocks (much easier, I think). I think folks who come to the math salon might enjoy this. I'm planning to lead them in cutting snowflakes from circular coffee filters, and this will complement that well.

  2. In the AVID curriculum there's an activity like this which I think is called Gemlockx. It's for science procedure writing. In that version, you get a random assortment of stuff to build a building. You write down the procedure you used to build it. Then switch papers with the door partner and each try to build what the other wrote. It's about a billion times harder because you have to write it out and you're not allowed to clarify anything. I've done a simplified version where they drew the building instead as well.

  3. I've done something similar, where I would read out loud a bunch of crappy instructions to kids for how to draw/write the number 5, and then give them a much better set of instructions (with approximate measurements). In the end, we tape all of them in the front of the room to show comparison, and then we brainstorm what is "good" scientific writing and the kids practice writing about how to draw a stick figure (or some other such task I cannot remember now). It was super fun!

  4. What a fun way to learn the power of language! I was impressed by how close the second row of shapes resembled the originals. I can imagine how enjoyable this activity must've been for the students!

    As a pre-service teacher, I've been thinking about unit planning a lot lately, and specifically the essential understanding and essential questions that need to be thought out first for the backwards unit design. I'm curious to know if you selected this activity as an ice breaker for your students, seeing that it was done on the second day of class, or if it was the start of a new unit. If it's the latter, what essential understanding were you trying to allow the students to achieve through the activity?

  5. What a great activity to develop communication skills. I bet the students loved it. I have done something similar with geography. We had to describe a continent to a partner and have them draw it. It is a very difficult task that requires much patience and listening.

  6. What were their answers for how the door project is math?