Instructional routines as a theme

So I’m doing a lot of thinking about (instructional) routines this year: what they look like, what they mean, how to use them, etc. I feel like I’ve begun to develop a much deeper understanding of all the ways I can use routines in my classroom. I’m actually doing 2 PDs right now at MfA, both about using routines. One is with David Wees, from New Visions and one is by two of my long-time favorite facilitators, Kara Imm & Rhonda Bondie. They compliment each other, I think, as we’re doing different things with routines. Plus, this year, I just discovered Amy and Grace’s book, Routines for Reasoning (and first learned their other routine, Contemplate, then Calculate, from Jasper & Constance at MfA last semester). Last summer, I read Pamela Weber Harris’s Developing Numeracy books and the Making Number Talks Matter book, and this year, I’ve finally started integrating number talks (which I launched with quick images) & problem strings into my practice. 

I’m still marinating on all of these ideas about instructional routines, but these were a few quick ideas I wanted to document and share. 

Number talks vs Problem strings 

People sometimes talk about these interchangeablely, but it’s more useful to distinguish between the two. David shared a great descriptor tonight, which matches how I have been thinking about it. Number talks focus on ONE problem and MANY strategies, whereas a problem string uses a carefully sequenced SERIES of problems that focus or highlight ONE strategy. This made me think about when you’d choose to use each one and I had a realization of how I want to use them/how I’ve already started using them. 

At the start of a topic where I plan to use NT/PS, do a number talk to uncover student strategies, reveal misconceptions, and determine how many strategies the students already know. Think of it as a pre-assessment. Then do a series of problem strings designed to highlight/reinforce specific strategies: bonus points if you refer back to which students shared those ideas in the initial number talk. Hopefully, you also manage to incorporate some strategies that ate new to everyone here. Finally, conclude the unit with a number talk to see which strategies the students have integrated into their toolboxes and perhaps even evaluate which methods are “best” for given problems and why. 

I just realized I call BOTH of these “number talks” with my students, and i’m now wondering if it would help guide our discussion of they knew we had slightly different focuses in advance, before we started: many strategies vs target strategies. 

I’ve done several number talks and problem strings this year; some I’ve liked better than others. I’ve done it in both 6th and 7th grade with all of my classes. Sometimes, I’ve had a context and sometimes I haven’t (though, to be honest, I think the context has been extremely important in supporting student success). However, one thing I’ve noticed is that my 6th graders (who value listening to each other more) do better at it than my 7th graders and they all seem to struggle when the number talks/problem strings go on “too long” (what qualifies as too long can vary, depending on day, time, class, or particular content/context/problem). I realized that one thing I find lacking in the routine is that it seems very whole class focused, and while there’s individual think time (I use thumbs to show when students have an answer), there’s no partner talk, so it can be a long time of sitting and listening. 

Which brings me to the instructional routine I’ve been learning about/experiencing this year: contemplate then Calculate. It is VERY structured (which I like & appreciate!), and includes several specific times for students to talk/share with partners. I think this phase is incredibly valuable and I want to figure out how to integrate the partner component in to my number talks/problem strings.