Although my team found disaster, since our tower could not stand without our help, we did use a lot of communication skills, problem solving, mathematical sense, and creative thinking to try to make it work. I knew coming up with a simple version of this was the perfect way to introduce my students to the inquiry based model of math instruction they would experience this year.
For both Math 7 and Math 8, I first introduced the concept of WWK (words worth knowing) with the same word: Persevere. Most kids did not immediately know what "persevere" means. However, given the chance to discuss in small groups, in every class, a working definition was formed. I stressed this from the very first day as traditionally, it is a very weak skill most students have when working on difficult problems. That might be the reason "persevere" is prominent in the very first Mathematical Best Practice: make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
From there, students worked in groups of four to complete the year's first performance task: Building a Paper Tower. I have three classes of Math 7, followed by two classes of Math 8. Given the more sophisticated Math 8 (Pre-Algebra) students, I altered the task slightly for them.
Math 7 Task:
Given 4 sheets of copy paper, and 12" of masking tape, work with your team to create the tallest, freestanding tower possible in 15 minutes. The tower must be able to remain standing for at least 10 seconds.
Math 8 Task:
Given 4 sheets of copy paper, and 12" of masking tape, work with your team to create the tallest, freestanding tower possible in 20 minutes. The tower must be able to support 5 pennies and the pennies must be at least 10 cm from the table. The tower must be able to remain standing for at least 10 seconds.
I created a table on the front board to display the results from each group through the day. Interestingly, each hour took it as a challenge to beat the previous record. So, the towers continued to get taller and taller. In fact, I expected the towers from the last two classes of Math 8 students to end up significantly shorter since they had to support 5 pennies. However, the tallest tower of the day was from Math 8 students. To me, this is a perfect example of raising your expectations of kids and they will meet those expectations.