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Launching a Year of Meaningful Math: Ideas That Go All Year

For years in my classroom, literacy was the “it girl” getting all the attention and beginning-of-the-year hoopla: inquiry-driven immersion weeks and pep rally launch units for both reading and writing. Eventually, word study also got its due, as we kicked off a year of exciting word collecting with a logophile’s launch. Math… just started. So serious, so blah, so… typical. It wasn’t hard to see that this “quick to get busy” practice was why math felt stale and learners didn’t seem invested or independent. So, I changed my ways. Math moved from let’s start computing to let’s explore the building blocks of engaged math learning! I now emphasize building the mindset of a motivated, risk-seeking, collaborative mathematician. Here’s my 5-step plan to launching a year of meaningful math.

STEP 1: Set up the space.

The last time I unpacked new math manipulatives, I quickly found myself lost in a sea of piled-high boxes that could rival any shopaholic's Amazon Prime Day aftermath! Math = materials. Lots—and lots—of materials. Here are a few questions I consider as I set up a welcoming space for math learning:

  • Where will we gather to meet, talk, and share as a whole class? What materials do I want to have close by and on hand?

  • How might I best organize all those manipulatives? Since math tools are used almost every day, how will I make sure students can get and put away materials easily and safely—without needing to come to me?

  • Where will partnerships and small groups gather to think, discuss, try, and reflect together?

  • Where will I meet with small groups so I can still keep an eye on all that is happening around the classroom?

  • How might I involve students in this decision making?

STEP 2: Mentor a math mindset.

In my own elementary school days, math made me sick. I was incredibly anxious during math; I was scared to take a chance or get an answer incorrect. I don’t want any learner to experience that kind of unease, so I like to kick-off learning by announcing my pride in being a leader in mistake making. I tell students that I embrace taking chances. I model seeking out risks, and I keep talking throughout the year about being okay with all the messy (and beautiful!) parts of learning something new. I nurture different ways to think, alternative approaches to problem solving, and a variety of methods for sharing thinking and ideas. I intentionally defy the implied need to rush and instead slow it all down, focusing on making math comfortable and fun. Check out these three blogs on modeling/leading risk taking, seeking out appropriate classroom learning risks, and maintaining momentum with classroom risk taking. The blogs include practical suggestions that foster a learner’s mindset for math and I hope, will diminish math anxiety.

STEP 3: Teach routines.

Well-practiced routines are the secret to a fluent, easy-going environment. I provide explicit, process-based instruction for classroom routines. I build in the time to practice, reflect on, and celebrate our progress towards independence. Here’s a glimpse of the routines to introduce and practice during a launch:

  • Coming to the meeting area, sitting beside math partner in meeting area, and leaving the meeting area

  • Understanding teacher roles and student roles in math, different parts of a math session

  • Treating math tools as they were meant to be treated. TIP: Take time to explore and use them as “toys” first… and once that is out of the way, then teach how to use these tools when we are working as mathematicians, including how to put them away.

  • Talking with a partner in math (answers vs. hints, supporting vs. enabling, speaking and listening, question-asking that promotes thinking, etc)

  • Setting up a math notebook (grades 2 and up) and jotting math thinking (check out this blog for more specific ideas on teaching math jotting)

STEP 4: Cultivate collaboration.

Math invites collaboration. However, knowing how to rally learning while working in groups isn’t instinctual and often takes practice. Use the launch to lean into the predictable tricky moments. Meet and talk together about tougher parts of working with others. Finally, figure out the balance of collaborative and independent practice that is comfortable for this group of learners. Here are a few brief classroom anecdotes to drive these points home:

  • My last year working full time as a classroom teacher, I kicked off learning with a class inquiry to explore the question: What does it mean to collaborate? During this time, class members interviewed others, participated in team-building activities, and tried out different small-group learning routines. Each of these experiences acted as research. We met regularly to share observations, grow new theories to test, and build stronger understandings. It was not lost on this thoughtful group of learners that by investigating this question… we were also learning to collaborate with a new community of class members.

  • Early in the year, while students work in partnerships, I eavesdropped. A lot. I jotted down all the interesting and supportive partner talk I heard. At the end of our early math sessions, I shared what I heard and together as a class, we celebrated these successes. We co-created anchor charts of possible partner talk. These snippets and stems were much more “real life” and natural than some of the very formal accountable talk stems I used to teach. One year, the students suggested that I videotape math partners working together. We then “studied” the tapes like sportscasters and called out the “moves” partnerships made that could be repeated and replicated by other partnerships. We also asked “what else?” and brainstormed other ways to go about sustaining this kind of success.

  • I love the beautiful buzz of classroom learning, but over time, I also came to understand the need for quiet. When the school day is filled with partnerships and group work, many learners go home feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Independent experimenting and practicing need to be valued. Although math can often be inherently collaborative, we can also create the time and space for serene and tranquil thinking. As a teacher, I tried to tune in to the temperment of each group of learners. There were years when we had one or two more “peaceful” math sessions per week. There were also years when daily partner/group time was more carefully balanced with individual, quiet working time. I sometimes got it wrong and needed to experiment a bit more with scheduling to find what best suited a group of learners. But, once we figured out “our” version of equilibrium, the rhythm of the class was harmonious.

STEP 5: Reboot relevance.

Notice that in the four steps shared above, everything was purposeful, not merely “ice breaking.” You want to keep this track record for relevance up beyond the launch and across the year. In Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst talk about interesting versus relevant. When we work to make something interesting, we may capture attention for a short time. When something is relevant, we sustain engagement and investment over time. Math provides endless opportunities for real-life, relevant problem solving. Relevant math provides relatable contexts, accessible learning, and richer math comprehension. In the next two blogs, John and Shanna will talk in great detail about this kind of student-centered, relevant math learning. We hope you stay tuned and check out these ideas.

Beers, K and Probst, R.E. (2017). Disrupting thinking: Why how we read matters. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Image: https://pixabay.com/en/football-kick-off-beginning-center-3475163/