# A Math Book to Change Your Teaching

This is a funny title for a post because I have to say that this math book hasn’t “changed” my teaching exactly, but it has opened my eyes to how we can simplify our teaching.

I’m reading Building Mathematical Comprehension: Using Literacy Strategies to Make Meaning by Laney Sammons. I chose to read this book because with all the demands in our teaching profession, I was seeking a way to simplify things.  We cannot get everything done in a day, a week or even in a school year, so I keep thinking that there has to be a way to integrate things so that we aren’t going crazy every day.

Now literacy and math are not the same. But they have similarities, check this out:

The entire book focuses on ways to use literacy strategies in math.  And when you read it, you’ll be thinking “Oh my gosh! This just makes sense!”

One thing I’m going to try this year as a math coach, is to model some problem solving lessons in classrooms. In this book she talks about using comprehension strategies before, during and after solving a problem. Since math truly is all about problem solving, I’m envisioning an anchor chart adapted from my reading (pg. 35-38). I think as we work through problems, it may help students get “unstuck”.  It’ll look something like this:

I say that it’ll look “something” like this, because I want to come up with the anchor chart WITH the students. I think doing a problem as a whole class (and using a think-aloud strategy) would help them see the kind of thinking that should be going on in your mind while problem solving.

This book has even more literacy strategies that you can use in your math classroom.  Using some of the same vocabulary in your math and literacy blocks can help students make great connections!

To win a copy of this book, you will have to enter by clicking the link below.

There are a bunch of us talking about great books that have changed our teaching, so don’t forget to check out Mr. Elementary Math’s book, he is next in this blog hop.

# What Does Success Look Like?

Pretend with me for a moment, that you have never seen an apple before in your life. Now pretend that someone has asked you to peel it, but you’ve also never peeled anything before in your life.  How do you know what to do to be successful? How will you know when you have been successful?

That in a nutshell is what “success criteria” is.  It’s all about letting students know what success looks like, and how they will know that they have met the learning target.

In my mission to examine learning targets and communicate them, I learned that it wasn’t enough to simply display them for students. It STILL wasn’t enough for students to write them in their math journals.  My students needed to see the learning target, write it, and then have some sort of interaction with it.  This is where I combine this idea of success criteria (Hattie 2012) with Marzano’s Levels of Understanding.

Here is an example of what this can look like.  You begin your content lesson by reading the learning target out loud, allowing students time to write it down in a math journal (or some other place to take notes). Notice the learning target starts with “I can”.  (It would be just like saying, I can peel an apple.)

I can read and write numbers up to 1,000.

Now some students will have prior knowledge about the learning target, so allowing them a moment to interact and think about this learning target is essential.  You can show them (or you can do this orally) what the different levels of understanding look like. Here is what it could be for this particular learning target:

Using success criteria in the classroom can help students understand the outcome of their learning.

I use Marzano’s Levels of Understanding to anchor my thinking (which I blew up and posted on the wall-this is a free resource by the way!) because the students connect easily to the language.  After I show them what each level looks like, I have the students rate themselves on the current target. Their goal is always the same every day, get to the next level, get higher and get better.

After this mini intro, I teach the lesson. We practice with tiered examples so that everyone is challenged, we talk it through with each other, we help each other come to an understanding.  We break into independent practice work where I can catch the students who still feel like a 1 or 2.  Then we close the lesson with an exit slip or an assignment, rating ourselves once again to see where we fall on the scale.  I take a look at what they wrote for their final rating and catch those students during the review, intervention block or some recess time the next day.

This seems like a lot of work, and I won’t lie that at first it was for me. It was a different way of thinking.  But soon after I started to do this, I noticed that it was easier and easier to think about what a 0-4 looks like.  If I ever skipped the rating part, my students would actually shout at me “What does a 3 look like?!” They wanted to know what it would take to be successful! It was very powerful.  You may not have time to write it out like this for every lesson, but you can do it orally while referring to the levels on the wall.

This tweak to my instruction was a total game changer.  Thank you John Hattie and Robert Marzano for your inspiration!

# Build A Strong Math Culture With The Standards For Math Practice

With all of the current criticism about the CCSS and “Common Core Math” (I put that in quotes because that phrase has been driving me crazy, now that is another blog post in my mind), I’ve been happy to see that the Standards for Mathematical Practice have been left alone.

I’m glad that they’ve been left alone in the criticism because the Math Practice Standards are all encompassing thinking habits, more than they are standards to be met.  They encourage us to teach mathematics more as a learning subject than a performance based subject. Math absolutely should require lots of messy critical thinking, deduction, discussion and reasoning.

Someone last year said/asked me, “I just don’t understand what these standards are for.  What are they?” I explained them the best way I could, since I had just spent a month researching them to know them better:

1. The math practice standards are a set of math habits, ways in which we should think about math. (That sounds so simple, but the way the standards are worded, it has driven many of us crazy while trying to understand them.  Reason abstractly and quantitatively? Huh?  It sounds like a completely different language!) The standards are all about developing positive habits and attitudes about math.
2. They allow students to explore math as a learning subject.  They begin to understand that math is not about the teaching asking a question, and the student must answer it correctly. Most importantly they begin to see the connection to their lives.  Math connects so beautifully to real life, but because the U.S. has such a worksheet culture, we’ve lost that connection.
3. Math from K-12 has the same underlying theme with these standards. As the years tick by the content standards become more complex, but the practice standards remain the same.  With the Standards for Mathematical Practice, we can develop a very positive culture surrounding mathematics.  A culture of persevering when encountering a problem, making sense of the world with math, using prior knowledge to solve new problems, being precise and reflective, patterning to find faster ways of working, explaining our thinking, understanding others thinking, knowing what tools will best help to solve problems, and connecting the world with abstract numbers and symbols. This all makes us excellent THINKERS.

We’ve had math coaches, administrators and other teachers pass out posters to put up in our classrooms. We’ve seen freebies and posters that we are meant to download and print. We’ve put them up on our walls with very few of us digging in to what they actually mean. I WAS one of those people. I had a poster of the kid friendly standards up for two years, and it wasn’t until last year that I realized one of the standards was completely inaccurate on the poster.  I had never bothered to check, and I assumed that the source knew the standards.  Can you blame me? I didn’t have the TIME to dissect what each one means.  It felt like another thing…another plate to spin…another added responsibility. I truly didn’t understand the importance of the standards to create a culture.

When I decided to figure out what they really mean, introduce them to my students from the start of the school year, work through the problems with them, and embed the language in the classroom, the culture really changed. We became mathematicians who could work through anything. It was remarkable. We put our work on the walls to help remind us that these were to be a part of our classroom daily.  We truly became vicious problem solvers, we worked together and math was about learning.  Math became FUN.

After a month of research I created posters, problems and activities to help myself understand them, but also to help teachers understand them, too.  (Feel free to check out the preview which walks you through the first standard.)

Build a culture by introducing, working with and revisiting the Standards for Math Practice.

Even if the Common Core goes away (which it most certainly will, and already is in many states), I will always keep the Standards for Mathematical Practice.  It is a foundation in which we can all build upon, year after year!

# You are NOT Bad at Math

Did you know that there is not a “math gene” that makes us good at math? If you haven’t read this yet: Why Do Americans Stink at Math? I would highly suggest taking the time to read.  The long and short of it, is that during the industrial revolution, we took the fast track and tried to teach math the fastest way possible.  We taught shortcuts instead of conceptual understanding.  This method of teaching allowed our students to go directly from their education into a factory job, but it did a great disservice to a generation.  This is why people believe that they are “bad at math”.

The world has changed and we can no longer do this to our students, but according to the article above we still are.  Despite many attempts at changing our math practices, we still find the majority of U.S. teachers using traditional methods. Of students attending 2 year colleges, 60% of them are placed in remedial math classes, and only 25% of those students pass those classes! (Silva & White, 2013)

I would strongly recommend that you watch this video by Jo Boaler, of Stanford University. It is 20 minutes long, so if you can’t watch it all, try the first 8 minutes.  In it she talks about how we need to make math a learning subject (exploratory, messy, open ended and challenging), not a performance based subject (math is only about answering questions correctly).

To return math to being a learning subject, we can use rich open ended tasks, inquiry activities, real world projects and problems that encourage math talk and discourse!  Please check out my free Reasoning Puzzle Set to try out an activity that will really get your students thinking and talking and most importantly, learning at high levels.

Reasoning Puzzles to promote student to student math talk.

These are most appropriate for 3 and 4th graders, but even could be beneficial for fifth graders that are not used to thinking this way!  If you end up using them, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Today was a totally delightful 20 minutes of math play. It ended up being almost 40 minutes as we created our play situation.

I have to admit that sometimes pretending can be exhausting.  Maybe as I’ve gotten older I’ve lost that spontaneous creativity. So I was happy to find a way that I could “pretend” a real life situation…ordering food at a restaurant. Today, it was almost lunch time and my 5 year old and I decided we were going to make our own restaurant…PB & J. We built the menu, with her telling me the items and prices.  It was fun to think of the different categories and to put together the menu. We grabbed a notepad, marker and some cash and we were ready to go. (Notice some of her choices, “Soda is not very healthy so we can make it very expensive.”)

Right away she wanted to order a Hawaiian Punch juice box, and an appetizer of crackers.  That was when I asked her how much money she had.  She counted her cash, “I have 8 dollars.”  I asked her if she had enough money to buy a lunch.  This was one of those moments where I wish she would think out loud, because she immediately changed her drink order for milk. I bet all kinds of good mathematical thinking was going on there! Now, if I know my daughter, it’s because she wanted enough money for dessert!

Here she is counting her money after ordering her milk and crackers, to be sure she would have enough.

Sure enough, I took her order and it came out something like this:

She quickly realized that she was NOT going to have enough money for dessert, so she sprinted off to go and get her piggy bank, coming back with coins.  She asked me so innocently, “How many of these do I need for a dollar… one?” That was the perfect moment to tell her that a dollar is ten dimes, or four quarters…the perfect intro as to why she needs to know about coins and their values.

Which will lead to many more fun money play sessions!  We can use this same menu, but change up the ways to pay, the amounts and combinations of money.  All of which she will have a strong reason to want to know how to do it.

The best part? I told her that she needed to make sure to leave the server (me) a tip. As I left the room with her dirty plates, she secretly wrote this on a piece of paper and presented my “tip” to me when I came back:

I’ll take that tip over 20% any day!

# Get Them to Skip Count: Moving Toward Automaticity

I love when math becomes a natural part of our lives. When my five year old mastered counting to 20, we began counting by two for fun.  Now we count by two all the time, it is faster and she gets to see and hear herself say even numbers. We always make sure to pair up whatever we are counting. For example, this morning as we were coloring she paired up some of her colors.

When I asked her how many she had, she answered “Six!” without even thinking about it.  She is now at the point where seeing three pairs means six without having to count it up.  That intentional practice sprinkled throughout the day leads to great number sense in the long run. We never sit there and recite it, we do it authentically when we have a lot of things to count up.

Maybe next we’ll start to tackle groups of three. Skip counting is so fun!

# Sometimes They Explain It Better Than You

As much as my ego doesn’t like to admit it, often times my student’s explanations of math concepts and processes is WAY more effective than mine.  In the past I would actually make myself a little crazy as I tried to think up 15 different ways to say the same thing to teach a tough concept. Then, one tiny little 8 year old would trot up to the board, say it perfectly, and the light bulbs would go on.

During a response day, when I noticed that students were struggling a bit with perimeter, I made tiered/leveled posters around the room of perimeter tasks.  Leveled posters allow for differentiation, and they are also formative so that you can see who is meeting your learning target vs. who is not.

For example, this learning target was: I can calculate perimeter when a side is missing.

• Level 2 (basic): all the measurements were labeled on all of the sides of the figure.
• Level 3 (proficient): one side of the figure had a missing measurement.
• Level 4 (advanced): more than one side was missing their measurements.

Level 3 Poster: The students had to add the two sides that were known, to find the unknown side. (The two in the corner signifies that this is the second problem as they numbered their papers.)

Their goal was to try to get through them all. The problems were numbered, so they simply numbered their half sheet of paper and tried each one.  I tell them ahead of time what it means when they successfully answer each problem.  They knew the levels and consequently tried hard to get all three. (No one got the Level 4 problem, very close, but not quite!)

Level 4 Poster: This one perplexed even my accelerated gifted and talented student. He missed the insides of the figure.

My favorite part is the math talk session where they discuss their answers with each other. We move from poster to poster, and students speak up and share their thinking. I don’t have to say a word.  You hear a lot of shouts of understanding and mistake finding as they explain.  Again, it is okay for me to take a backseat. I don’t have to blabber my mouth (for double the time) when very quickly they speak to each other.  When everyone is stuck, that is when I step in.

When students do the talking, they do the learning!

# Classifying Shapes Using Tangrams

Since our geometry unit is so full of vocabulary, I am always looking for ways to have students apply the vocabulary to new situations. After learning how to make our own tangrams yesterday, we took it to another level today. We decided to sort and classify the shapes that make up the tangrams. Because we’ve spent a few days describing two types of polygons: triangles and quadrilaterals, we had some really nice anchor charts up on the wall.

Their task today was to classify and describe the shapes from their tangrams using sides and angles. This meant that some of their shapes could be described in more than one way. This was a really cool opportunity for students to participate in math talk, and it was even better to see them using the anchor charts we made together:

The student on the right is trying to classify his triangle by looking at angles.  The student on the left quickly realized that he was holding a shape with four sides.

This student is checking to see if all four of her sides are equal, as well as if there are four right angles in her shape.

There is nothing better in a math class than hearing students argue over whether something is a right angle or not. Hearing words being used authentically was really cool, especially since they could actually touch and manipulate the shapes! I’ve really taken geometry a long way since I started teaching (ahem…I used to use worksheets only…please don’t judge me!), and the terms and vocabulary has started to stick because of it.

# Earth Day Water Pollution Activity: A Cross Curricular Inquiry Study

Today was one of those magical days at school. It was the kind of day that makes me LOVE my job, where all the pieces go together very nicely and the worldview expands for the students in the classroom. Today was one of those “teach like a pirate” days, where we took risks and immersed ourselves fully into an important issue.

We began our Earth Week (not just Earth Day) by learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, something that is largely unknown to the general population.  We read about the issue with a two page informational text today, while responding in writing with our new understandings.

Then we watched this video:

After lots of important discussion, I asked them a question, “How would you clean it up?”

That led to an awesome water pollution experiment, which ended up both engaging and frustrating the students.  The groups had to try to clean up the water using the least amount of money possible.  They had to write out their plan as a group together, figure out the cost and bring their proposal to my supply table to collect the materials they needed to clean the water. They had to be detailed and precise, use math in a very real way, and had to work under time pressure. Here is a peak into what it looked like:

Buckets were prepared with water and biodegradable items like coffee grounds, shredded paper, food that the kitchen hadn’t served but had to throw away, and soil.

Reused or recyclable items were for sale for students to use to clean up the water. (I wash out the cups and forks to reuse each year for this experiment! We reuse ziplock bags collected throughout the week.  We recycle other plastics and aluminum foil.)

The students cleaned the water after “purchasing” materials.

Many methods were used to clean the water.

We compared water samples at the end, to see who was most successful. We also compared budgets, to see who was able to keep costs down.

We’ll continue this work for the rest of the week:

• We’ll be writing a letter to explain what we learned today about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the difficulties of cleaning up water.
• I plan to immerse them in lots of good Earth Day literature like: The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry, Oil Spill by Melvin Berger, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, The Wump World by Bill Peet.
• We’ll be learning about alternative energy to make wind powered cars later in the week, and we’ll even try to harness the sun by measuring and making solar ovens.
• We’ve also got some tough math problems in the works as part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch unit to help us think about conserving!

I love Earth Day…Earth Week, and more importantly introducing important issues to our young learners, encouraging critical thinking in meaningful ways.  I’d love to hear what you do in your classroom! The more ideas we have to share, the more we can teach our children to be environmental stewards.