Rolling out Number Talks & Strings

So earlier this summer, I read Pamela Weber Harris’s book, Building Powerful Numeracy, and I decided that I wanted to incorporate number strings into my classroom routines this year. I have been struggling about exactly where and what to start with. Then, I was looking at a sample of the book, Making Number Talks Matter, yesterday, and after reading the sample, I was hooked and immediately downloaded the kindle edition. I’ve been reading it, and even though I’m not very far yet, I feel like I already have figured out a lot about how I want to roll out the number talks with my students.

I really like the suggestion of doing a “dot talk” with the students, and I noticed that in Jo Boaler’s Week of Inspirational Math, that’s how she rolls it out too! I also noticed it’s actually the same exact pattern (which makes sense, since I know Jo Boaler collaborates with the authors of that book, since she wrote the foreward!).

My school year doesn’t start until after Labor Day, so I still have a bunch of lead time to plan this all out in more detail, but what I’m currently thinking about (for the roll-out of the number talks/strings) is as follows:

Thursday, 9/8 is the first day back. My current idea is start with having students arrange themselves in alphabetical order (by first name, with last names as tie breakers) & sit in alphabetical order, to have students then create a “name plate,” my own introduction & a “numbers about me” activity, and then have students write three important numbers about themselves and share at least one with a partner. Given that I only have 43 minutes per period (and probably some lost time in between due to beginning of the year craziness), I’m assuming that’s basically all we’ll have time to do (if we even accomplish all of it!).

Friday, 9/9, is the day I’d like to start setting up some classroom norms and having the students really begin working with each other. I am not 100% positive what I’ll do this day yet. In the past, I’ve liked to talk about what a productive classroom looks like, what things help learning and what gets in the way, and to focus explicitly on growth mindset. In previous years, I’ve actually watched some of the videos from and the How to Learn Math course, and I’ve assigned further work on it for HW. I definitely think I want to show some videos and have students read the article about how they learn math, but again, I don’t know if we’ll have time to do it all in class (or if they may have to read the article at home over the weekend?!). I was also thinking about including an activity called Talking Points about some growth mindset statements/ideas about math: I don’t know exactly when I’ll be able to incorporate this, but I want to figure it out!

I think one of the two first days, I’d like to use the “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” activity as a warm-up to get my students used to it. I’m planning for the first one we talk about to be the graphic that actually says “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” I also want to use the activities from Boaler’s week of Inspirational Math at some point, but I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to do all five days in a row, or if they’ll have to be spread out, or when we’ll even be able to do it all, etc. Logistics of that will be harder to figure out to some degree.

Monday, 9/12 is a holiday, so we have no school. Tuesday, 9/13 is the next day back, and we have a four-day week. In 6th grade, I’m going to be launching my unit on negative numbers, while in 7th grade, I’m going to be launching my unit on data and probability with histograms and such. I think this is the week that I’d like to launch the number talks, starting with the dot talks. After reading the first few chapters of the Number Talks book, I think this is a good way to set up my expectations for number talks with the kids (which I’m going to outline from that chapter again), as well as convey to them the importance of recognizing that all of us see math in different, but equally valid, ways. I like the low “fear factor” in that there isn’t really much arithmetic involved so even students who may already have math anxiety shouldn’t be too afraid to speak. I also like the idea of being able to have students turn-and-talk with each other about the dot patterns to start introducing themselves to their elbow partners – perhaps even with drawing on diagrams. From everyone’s blogs that I’ve read, starting with dots allows access for ALL students and sends the right message from the get-go. So I definitely think I’d like to start with a week of those.

For the second week, 9/19-9/23, I’m either going to dive into subtraction (the one that Making Number Talks Matter encourages starting with), or I’m going to see what’s necessary for my students first – perhaps going into multiplying. I wonder how proficient my students will be with these methods, and when we’ll be able to add in fractions and decimals within a number string. I also wonder when/whether to make it a number string vs. a single problem that we discuss multiple strategies for.

My goal (from Sarah Van Der Werf) is to try to do one per day, every day for the first two full weeks so that I do at least ten in a row. And after that, my goal (based on advice from Pam Harris) is to continue doing number talks/strings at least 3 – 4 times per week.

While in the midst of writing this blog, I just got lost in the blog-o-sphere. I wanted to look up something about the ducks that Sarah Van Der Werf references here: and over an hour and a half later, I realized I hadn’t finished my blog post yet! Whoops!

I’m going to keep reading the book before I make more instructional decisions about when and how to incorporate the number talks and what skills/topics to build on. I think to some degree, I can’t fully plan them in advance because they need to be responsive to my students and their needs. For example, my current assumption is that my students have no familiarity with the open number line (since when I mentioned it to my new 7th grade colleagues, they looked at me blankly, and even the 6th grade teacher was unfamiliar with it as a representation), but the elementary schools that feed into my new middle school might very well make use of that representation – so the students might know it from elementary school. I’ll have to wait and see!


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