When my school became an AMSTI (Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative) school, I began to make many changes to my math instruction and my philosophy about teaching in general. I’ll be the first to admit that I like control in my classroom. I control the climate, I control the noise, I control the behavior. I learned that sometimes it’s okay to gradually shift the control of certain learning and choices from the teacher to the student. I was holding their learning so tightly in my hands that they were not able to take ownership of it at all. The ones who were ready to accelerate were forced to slow down. The ones who needed to back up and practice certain strategies were being pushed forward too fast, with no time to develop a true understanding of the skills I was teaching.
My instruction is still far from perfect. But I am finding much greater results and satisfaction in my students and in myself since I have shifted towards several practices over the last six years of teaching. It’s a long process, one that will probably never end. I think all great teachers are constantly changing to fit the needs of their students. And the results are not quickly obvious. They start out small, like a tiny bud. But then, before I know it, they are full-blooming and I am speechless by the concepts and ideas pouring out of my students.
Here are just three practices I’ve implemented that have caused my students to make me say…”Wow…”
Letting Them Do More Talking Oooohhhhh, my, this was hard for me. When I did all of the explaining and talking, my students said what I wanted them to say when I wanted to hear it. They were quiet, they sort of seemed engaged, they were quiet, they were still, they were quiet, and they were quiet! This was good enough for me. Except that there were always students who didn’t “get it.” And then there were students who wanted to say more and I didn’t let them because that wasn’t in the “plan.” When Mrs. Byrd came to my room (read about it here), I was fascinated by the things she pulled out of my kids without actually saying anything besides some very strategically placed questions. She facilitated the learning, but the kids owned it. This was and is a skill that I continue to cultivate within myself. Facilitating the learning without taking it from the kids. I’m reminded of something I often say to my students. When I ask a question that several of them know the answer to, they are bursting to shout it out. I usually remind them to give their friends some thinking time, and that if they shout out the answer before their friends get to think it through, they are actually taking some learning away from their friends. This, essentially, is what I was doing when I was doing all of the explaining and talking during my instruction time.
If you are a teacher, I highly suggest reading the article “Never Say Anything A Kid Can Say” by Steven C. Reinhart (MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL Copyright@ 2000 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.). This article gave me wonderful strategies for questioning during math instruction that actually worked for me. Different types of questions work for different ages and groups, but the ones that have especially been helpful to me have included the following…
*When showing two groups of objects, instead of just asking which one has more and which one shows less–and leaving it at that– I may ask, “How do you know which group has more ? What does more look like? What about this group let you know that it has more? What about less? What does less look like? Does it always look like that?”
*We have a helper that demonstrates how to count cubes for us daily. On one day, the helper may show us how to count 9 cubes. Instead of just asking how many cubes the helper counted, I may ask, “What did he do that good counters do?” Most years, the answers start out simple, like “He counted right” or “He got the right number.” But with daily practice in the routine and daily questioning–starting out with teacher questions that gradually change into more students discussion–the kids begin to say things that make my heart sing. Things like, “He counted them one at a time. He said a numeral for each cube. He counted slowly. He moved them into a line as he counted so he wouldn’t count the same cube twice.” And their ingenuity goes on and on and on.
*When a mistake happens, instead of just correcting the mistake, I simply start out the year by asking, “How can we turn this mistake into some great learning?” Perhaps a student is supposed to bring 10 bears to the counting mat but they accidentally bring 12. I usually ask the question above and the students quickly figure out that taking two bears away will leave them with 10 bears. Then, they are all eager to explain how they turned this opportunity into learning. “I looked at the number line and saw 12 was two away from ten, so I knew we had to lose two bears to get back to 10. I counted in my head and when I got to 10, I said two more numbers to get to 12, so I knew 12 was two too many. I already knew that 10 plus 2 is 12.” At the beginning of the year, when the first mistake happens, I act really excited. I tell the students, “Oh, I’m glad this happened. This happens to me all the time, and when I get mixed up, I slow down and think hard, and then I learn something new. So that means we are all about to learn something new! Get ready, guys, let’s think hard!”
Note: When I first started questioning and letting the kids do most of the talking, I was very nervous. And yes, I had several moments where I’d ask a question, and they’d just sit there and look at me like “Seriously? You’re the teacher and you don’t know this?” But I kept on, and as I grew more comfortable, so did they. Now it’s like second nature to me. It took time and practice and routine for sure where I was concerned.
Having a Math Routine This has to be one of the most important things I’ve done in my math instruction. No matter what “program” you are using, I would highly recommend finding a routine that works for you and helps you to not only “cover” the math standards for your grade, but to dig deep into the standards and help your kids gain a solid understanding of each concept. I get asked by many people, “Don’t you get tired of counting to 100 every day? How can you make doing a counting basket harder as the year goes on? Don’t the kids get bored with it?”
The answer is…it works. It works for me and has yielded a much deeper understanding of math concepts in my students. Some of the major components of our daily math routine are: Counting and Cardinality-Using the Hundreds Chart and Number Lines, Daily Data, Counting Basket and Math Journal, and Small Group/Math Stations. In the next week, I am going to go over our daily math routine in detail! 🙂
With a routine, my kids simply behave better. They know what’s on the map ahead, but they also realize that the stops today are going to look different than the stops yesterday, and they are already gearing their minds up for today’s stops. With a routine, I am held more accountable for teaching my plans and for planning my teaching. Routines work!!!!
Providing Small Group Instruction When I started small group instruction, I quickly realized what an asset this was to my individual assessment of each student. I was able to learn quickly who really grasped certain content, and who needed more help, or more enrichment. Of course, when I started small group instruction, this meant that I also started math stations (centers). I decided that I wanted my math stations to be a different format than my literacy stations, and I’ve done several different station formats. I will also be posting about the different ways the teachers in my school do math stations soon! I remember that the burning questions in my mind as I attended several math trainings years ago was, “What are the math stations going to look like in my room? Where will I put all the “stuff”? I don’t have room for another chart telling kids where to go! When will I have time to do this?” I know that stations are going to look different in every teacher’s room, because they need to work for that teacher and the particular group of students. Stations and small group instruction/intervention have been invaluable to me as a math teacher. I can’t wait to share with you all of the ideas that my friends and I have implemented! And I can’t wait to hear your ideas!
So these are my top three big ideas that seem to have transformed my math teaching and my students’ learning. What are some things you’ve done in your classroom/teaching setting that have revitalized your teaching and your students’ learning? Let us know in the comments below!