A New Expression

Math Meets Creativity with U-Can Projects
During the past two years, parents of Harding Academy fifth graders likely noticed something out of the ordinary as their students prepared for a major math project.
 
Requests for new colored pencils and drawing paper and costume props for video shoots replaced the occasional moans and groans over typical homework: All in response to math teacher Sara Neuss’s and language and math specialist Suzanne Nave’s initiation of the U-Can Project and their insistence that, “You can do it! You can be creative! You can share your talents!” 
 
What is U-Can?
The U-Can Project was conceived by Nave in 2002 as a response to the call for more tailored instruction designed to address unique learning styles.
 
“U-Can provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate their understanding of math concepts through personal connections and creativity,” Nave and Neuss stated in a recent presentation to the Middle Tennessee Math Teachers Association (MTMT).  
 
The U-Can Project employs an integrated approach, with students assigned to identify a math skill, such as divisibility rules, prime and composite numbers, and subtracting mixed numbers and demonstrate their understanding of that skill through artistic expression.
 
The Motivation
Through their insistence on differentiation and desire to strike a critical balance of challenge and nurture specific to fifth grade students, Nave and Neuss strive to meet three key needs of support, enrichment, and choice with the U-Can Project.
 
The concept of choice is of particular interest to Nave and Neuss, as research shows that choice promotes motivation, yet it is not always an option in the traditional classroom; choice also directly responds to the needs and concerns of adolescent development and adolescent egocentrism in particular.   
 
“The power of freedom goes a long way,” says Nave. “We see a lot of student excitement and motivation when they realize that they get to do what they want. Students […] are allowed to personally connect with the content in a way that suits them and makes them feel happy and confident.”
 
What’s Next?
After two years as part of the fifth-grade curriculum, the U-Can Project has had a significantly positive impact on students as individuals and as a learning community, Nave and Neuss report. Their vision for the future includes enhancing the integration of written expression specifically into the U-Can Project.
 
“Math is typically an ‘in your head’ kind of content area,” the team says. “Children work with numbers, symbols, and pictures. Reading skills have always been a part of math curricula in the form of word problems.
 
“What is often missing in math classes is written self-expression of math processes. In our teaching experiences, we have found that the process of translating their thinking into written expression takes their understanding one step further.”
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Inspiring The Mind  •  Nurturing The Spirit