Driving Through Culturally Responsive Teaching

High school math teacher from Hawaii with $25K grant ensures purposeful learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Wesley Adkins

Like the various communities that have lived in Ewa Beach over the years, our students come from very mixed cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. I have some students with undiagnosed dyscalculia and others on the spectrum with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or a 504 Plan to ensure their academic success and access to the appropriate learning environment.

The main problem is that many lack extrinsic motivation and equally they can get discouraged very easily and hate feeling stupid.

A Drive-in Cinema, Popcorn and Math

As a film enthusiast all my life, last year I applied for, and won a $25,000 Education Innovation Teacher Challenge grant to run a project incorporating all areas of education standards. My idea was to create the Ewa Beach Drive-In Cinema, as I felt that project-based learning was the best way to harness the students’ varied interests. It would help them develop diverse skills, from using computer science to calculate the projectors pitch onto the screen to developing business plans and creating a computer app.  

‘…if you can just find something that the students love, they will learn about the rest of the world through that.’

Because the Drive-In Cinema is an interdisciplinary project, we are working to take the students from all our different academies to explore things they are passionate about through the lens of the theater.

Let’s take math as the first example. I am an Algebra 2 and Geometry teacher at the school. As you can imagine, for a lot of our students, the second I talk about geometry or math, they instantly tune out. However, now that we’re working on the Drive-In project, I have them engaged and motivated.

We are currently considering the supply of popcorn. The students are working on calculating the necessary quantities, costs of the corn, the buckets and the machine, and of course how much revenue they need, to make the theater sustainable.

The next day they may use trigonometric ratios to solve problems including the ideal size for a particular number of patrons and angle of elevation with respect to the screen. If its 16 feet high and 30 feet wide and the seating area is 50 yard deep, what is the best viewing angle of the screen?

Gamification Aspect of the Project

When it comes to student engagement, the success of the project is largely due to gamifying everything we do.

I like using the online math resource Mangahigh which provides a games-based approach to learning skills. The learning is Common Core-aligned but the problems are delivered in terms of real-life challenges; the students find it a lot easier to visualize the problem and are truly engaged in deciding which mathematical skills they need to calculate the answers. Using these types of resources, I can get them off the conveyor belt of individual math skills but also know that they are learning them and more importantly, understanding their real-life application.

In Computer Science, the students are creating an app similar to Gardenscapes. As you may know, in Gardenscapes you have to match three puzzles to restore and decorate different areas of a garden to reach its former glory. The app our students are creating invites them to input their ideas on what is needed to create the perfect Drive-In cinema. More than ever at the current time all students that are involved are also using Discord to communicate with each other.

Following in stride with the game-based approach to learning, my students are also exploring ways to utilize Gather Town, in terms of how it might help make the Drive-In an immersive theater. Rather than some basic website used to inform people about the cinema, Gather Town allows us to build it in a virtual space where people can interact in a similar way to how they would in real life. It’s like turning the Ewa Beach Drive-In into Zelda!

Eco Friendly, Too

Focusing on sustainability, our eco bricking part of the project has the students collecting plastic waste including chip and candy wrappers and stuffing these into 20oz plastic bottles. Weights and quantities are logged in Excel and then once full, the bottles can be used as bricks; a common practice in the developing world. We have students working remotely at the current time, storing these in their homes and gardens. We’re also up-cycling other plastic bottles into popcorn buckets; showing a real-world application of cleaning up plastics. 

Innovative, Collaborative Tools

With so many students from different classes involved we use the Jamboard whiteboard app to get them collaborating in innovative ways including drawing up the designs and layouts for the cinema. Powered by Google Cloud the students use their tablets to access various editing tools to collaborate with their peers and teachers. Thankfully during lockdown, they have still been able to collaborate by accessing Jamboard from a web browser too.

Flipgrid has been another particularly powerful resource for the project; it’s like an educational Snapchat. We frequently create a discussion topic which is shared with the other students. They all add in their actions and contributions in the form of short videos; a medium they all prefer. Taking the popcorn topic as an example. I asked them to experiment with popcorn recipes and review them. We had rocky road, cheesecake and peanut brittle. Very soon we started to build video-based reviews of each recipe from the students, their families and friends. 

Applied Learning and The Power of Purpose

We are gradually shifting the students’ concept of learning from static classroom-based lessons which simply churn out formulas and problem sets, to getting them to see the big picture; the application of what they are learning.

It is demonstrating the true embodiment of project-based learning that all the teachers at the school are bringing into their teaching, while also following the national standards. The possibilities are limitless. I’m a firm believer that if you can just find something that the students love, they will learn about the rest of the world through that.

Wesley Adkins is a math (Algebra 2 and Geometry) teacher at James Campbell High School (JCHS) in Ewa Beach, Hawaii who used a recent $25,000 grant to bring all areas of the education standards to life for many of his students, some with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Write to: [email protected]

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