The Great Flagpole Debate of 2013

Sometimes teachers and students disagree. I know, shocking, right? So here is what caused the Great Flagpole Debate of 2013...           

 This unassuming little math problem:

It seemed simple to me.   The answer key said 20 feet, and I agreed.  One student, however, who got this answer wrong, 

"Um, Mrs. Bese... could that answer be wrong?" 

He cleared his throat and spoke again.  "I think the answer is 20 yards."  

Huh?  He was now gathering courage as he spoke from the heart, "I'm pretty sure I got that question right, because I looked at our flagpole outside during recess."  

Clearly, this child strongly believed that HIS answer of 20 yards was the correct one, based on the height of the flagpole in front of our school. This eight year old had the nerve to question me!  Me, the all-knowing teacher!  What to do?

We did the obvious thing. We googled it. And found out that most school flagpoles are between 20 and 40 feet. Ha!  I was right.  I was ready to move on.  My student, however, was not.  I looked at his trusting little face, and heard myself telling the class that I would think about how to measure the flagpole and let them know the next day.

 That night, I looked at my math geek family, took a deep breath, and asked them how to measure a flagpole.   I bet you can guess where this is going.  Yup.   Here is what I heard from Son#1:

"Trigonometry blah blah latitude, blah blah ratio, blah blah opposite length over adjacent length, blah blah tangent..." 

This was so not helping. Two weeks before THE BIG TEST is not the time to introduce new (and not tested) data to third graders.  Not to mention, it was giving me a headache.

My next idea was to get an iPhone app.   I found one for free, and early the next morning I held it out toward the flagpole, and was told that it was 25 feet tall.   Hmmm.  I gazed at it suspiciously.  Was it really measuring the flagpole?  Or the tree next to it?  The flagpole was now looking taller than that to me.   I did not trust this answer.

Next on my agenda was to contact the head of our maintenance department (hereafter known as Maintenance Dude) and ask him how tall the flagpole is.   He didn't know.  Nor did any other employee I questioned.  I even asked the Chairman of the School Board (hereafter known as School Board Dude), who happened to be on campus that morning.   He told me that he was certain it was more than 40 feet.   If that were true, my students deserved to know!  Now what?

 I started the school day, and 26 eight-year-olds looked up at me, waiting expectantly for me to resolve this dilemma.   I AM the teacher, after all.  They trust me.   So instead of teaching my scheduled lesson, I told them that we were going to take a field trip.  To our school flagpole.

For this field trip we took pretend helicopters to the front of the school (that's a story for another day...), and met the Maintenance Dude and the School Board Dude.


 These gentlemen proceeded to tie a VERY long measuring tape to the rope on the flagpole, and pull it to the top. The flagpole measured...

                  41 feet!

My student was right! We took our helicopters back to class and had a quick review of rounding - showing that 41 is closer to 20 yards than 20 feet.

 The class erupted in wild cheers and applause.  The student had beaten the teacher!   The answer key would be forever changed!  Life was good.

 So what did we learn from The Great Flagpole Debate of 2013?
 I would venture to say, these things:

1. Ask questions!  All the time.  Every day.  Even if your teacher looks at you funny.
2. Keep working until you find the answer.  Don't give up.

3. It sometimes takes a group of people working together to solve a problem.

4. Teachers can be wrong, and that's okay.

Was any of this on my lesson plan? No. Was it worth doing? YES!

When was the last time you ignored your lesson plans and did something completely different?  What did your students learn? 


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