I get so excited when my kids tell me stories of what is happening in their math classes. This is a favourite.
My youngest son (age 7, grade 2) began his story as soon as I picked him up from school.
"Mommy, did you know that if you wanted to buy, let's say some....fabric, you couldn't just like go the fabric store and say 'I'll have 20 pencils of fabric'"
I was curious where this was heading; being a mathematics consultant, I knew what grade 2's were working on at this time of year (measurement). I didn't want to steal his thunder, so I just went with it.
"Really, Michael?" I turned into teacher mode: "Can you tell me some more about that?"
He went on to explain in great detail and with loads of enthusiasm about all the trouble he would run into if he wanted to measure fabric with random objects. He actually had a lot of fun naming all of the things that would be silly to use to measure fabric. He went on for a while and wrapped up the conversation telling me there was this "thing" called a "centimeter" that we could all use and understand. You would swear he discovered the metric system himself; he took such ownership of the concept.
Keep in mind, I can't think of a time he has ever been in a fabric store (I am not the crafty type) and I am almost certain that before this math lesson, he would never have used the word fabric (cloth or material, maybe?).
So he had no previous experience with the concept but he was still engaged? Yes.
When I was at Dan Meyer's NCTM presentation (Beyond Relevance & Real World: Stronger Strategies for Student Engagement) last week, I couldn't help but think of this story from my son. I can imagine the kind of "teacher moves" my son's teacher used. She is a natural story teller, her enthusiasm is contagious and she loves to laugh. I can imagine her telling a story to the class, strategically leaving out important parts, having them experience her fabric store dilemma for themselves and brainstorming ideas with the class on how they can fix this problem!
Even if he didn't really discover the metric system, he certainly thought he did. And his teacher created those conditions. And I think that's pretty cool.