How to Begin?

Setting the tone at the start of the year is probably one of the most important things we do as teachers. I know that in years that I’ve spent more time building the learning community that I wanted in my room, I’ve had a more successful classroom climate over the course of the year. Whereas in years when I’ve rushed through it to “get to the math” or I’ve prioritized the wrong types of lessons/activities in the opening weeks of school, my classes haven’t always had the culture I want.

So I think the place to begin is to think about your priorities as a teacher and use “backwards design” to think about what it will take to create a classroom culture like the one you envision. Let me list some of my personal priorities.

I want to create a classroom where:

  • Students are addicted to being puzzled and unpuzzled. They enjoy noticing and wondering mathematically on a daily basis. Students observe, describe and generalize patterns – in other words, they do math!
  • Students talk to each other (not just to me!) every day. They listen to each other, they value everyone’s contributions, and they ask each other questions. Importantly, students know that their job is to convince each other or to push others to clarify their thinking so that it convinces them. Students value each other’s contributions, even when they’ve “already solved the problem”, because they know that they are building a toolbox of strategies and models for thinking that they can learn from their peers.
  • Beyond whole class conversations, students talk in smaller groups daily. Students work in partners or groups on a regular basis – to convince each other, to practice listening and restating each other’s ideas, to do math together and deepen each other’s understanding.
  • Mistakes are highly valued as a learning experience. We analyze mistakes and understand how they help our brains grow. Students value challenge and when they find problems easy, they ask for more challenging work that goes deeper into the current topic, not onto an unrelated topic.
  • All students begin every problem because they know they have access to starting it or they have suggestions for how to get unstuck/started. Students are not afraid to make mistakes, follow wrong strategies, get stuck – and share that with their peers. Students are able to persevere when the math gets hard, and students help each other get unstuck, both by working together to make sense of the math and by explaining to each other. All students are engaged in doing math every class.
  • Students know that math should make sense, and they question the reasonableness of their answers. Students don’t mindlessly compute, instead they consider the numbers and the context involved before deciding on a strategy to use.

In listing all of that out for myself, I realize that I’ve got a lot of different ideas going on and I need to think about what’s sustainable for me over the course of the year. Because if I don’t commit to doing it all year, then it’s going to fall by the wayside as the students forget and I don’t reference it. I need to think about routine ways to reference it and revisit it. I know from the first six years of teaching (and having totally different results each year) that the amount of work I put in upfront and the amount of work I put in to revisiting it over the course of the year will determine how strong the culture I want to cultivate in my classroom is.

Now, two things that work in my favor this September: first, I’ll be teaching at a totally different school, so the students there will have no preconceived notions of who I am as a teacher (yes, I know that can also work against me, but I’m choosing the see the positive side of it), and secondly, I’ll be teaching two new grades – so with everything else so new, this will be easily added. For the last five years, I’ve taught 8th grade math at a HUGE middle school on the upper east side of Manhattan. In the fall, I’ll be across town (in Chelsea) at a much smaller middle school teaching 6th and 7th grade classes.

I’ve also been working on my summer reading/thinking list – all of the things I want to read and think about incorporating this fall. And my list keeps growing bigger!

Things that are inspiring me and I’m trying to think about how to incorporate in a sustainable and meaningful fashion:

  • Jo Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets, her week of inspirational math, and the stuff I learned a few summers ago from her online MOOC, “How to Learn Math”
  • Dan Meyer’s 3-Act math, its effect on student engagement & students asking more questions and making more estimates.
  • Pam Harris’s Number Strings & the numeracy development that it drives.
  • Intentional Talk (the book) & questioning techniques – both me and the students.
  • Accountable talk & Talk Moves & ways to get students asking the right questions to move their thinking forward & never saying anything a student can say (the article)
  • 5 techniques for orchestrating discussions
  • Low-floor, high-ceiling rich tasks to engage all learners in doing REAL math type problems.
  • Having students think about groupwork and setting classroom norms sort of together but with my own goal in mind (to ensure all of my non-negotiables come up & that we have a good environment for learning).

Things I’m currently concerned about:

  • Creating classroom routines and rituals to ensure that we do certain things regularly.
  • Butting heads with my new colleagues over usage of “traditional” algorithms and moving too quickly through the curriculum so students have coverage (what they might force) vs students having deep understanding (what I want) – I don’t know if this is a founded or unfounded fear yet.
  • Grading everything & giving meaningful feedback in a timely manner for 120 students (when in the past, I’ve only had 90 and it’s been hard to keep up with!).
  • HW: its role in class, who’s actually doing it, how it’s being graded, what’s its purpose, going over it, etc. I know I want to keep doing a writing reflection (My Understanding) on a daily basis, but I think I want to shorten it for the students (especially since I’m now teaching younger students).
  • Teaching two new content areas, with less technology than I’m used to (i.e. no work laptop, no smart board, just an ENO board without the special pen), with younger kids, in fewer periods per week (I had 8-9, now I have exactly 6).
  • Teaching students the social/emotional skills they need to successfully work together in groups in math class.
  • Not successfully differentiating enough for all of my learners because the range of skills is so broad – some students with minimal skills while others will hear no new topics all year.
  • Rushing into doing math too quickly, without taking enough time to discuss rules, routines, procedures to keep everything orderly so we can learn. But also spending too much time “lecturing” about rules instead of building the classroom culture that is conducive to the kind of learning I want. Being too strict (without enough warmth) vs. being too permissive until I’m burnt out. Finding that balance.

I’m thinking that I’m going to spend some time thinking about and researching the kinds of activities that will help me set up this classroom environment. I think there are challenges in teaching middle school that high school teachers don’t face (particularly with the degree of structure that middle schoolers often require) and that elementary school teachers don’t face either (particularly with the fact that you try to do the same thing with four different groups of kids each day, and you might succeed more with one group than another).

These are my reflections so far on what I’m hoping for. There will be later posts with ideas of what I want to do during the first day, first week, first month of school to build up the kind of classroom I think is most conducive to learning math. Until then, I ask you, the reader, to comment here with any suggested readings/blogs about one of these topics:

  • creating a particular classroom culture that seems aligned with what I’ve outlined above.
  • first day, first week, first month activities to create this kind of culture.
  • routines and procedures you use in your classroom and how you introduce them.
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