Take a deep breath. They’re anxious too. Except maybe that one﹣looks a little too comfortable already. Ready? Ready. “Mathematicians, welcome to 7th Grade Math!” Genuine smile. Happy soul.
There is nothing more critical in teaching a classroom of middle schoolers than setting the tone for your community of scholars. Most days my main goal in teaching middle school math is morphing the wide-eyed, goofy group of tweens in front of me into believing that they are the brilliant, confident scholars that I believe they are. I’ll foster that growth as we build our math community out of respect and high expectations, both of which are vital in this process.
The goal for the first week is always the same, though the lessons generally change from year-to-year. My goal is to clearly communicate to my students what it takes to build a safe, collaborative community of mathematicians that is on the pursuit of learning from our misunderstandings. The stage of my classroom is set with accompanying posters that read, “The answer is the least important part of the problem,“ and “The room is smarter than any individual of the room.” We add to the nearly-blank classroom walls with student work, a giant anchor chart, and our One Word goals, as the year progresses.
One activity that is a staple for the first day of school is Sara VanDerWerf’s 100#s Task, which visually displays what learning Math will look like in our classroom. Day 2 is typically some sort of game from BreakoutEDU. Imagine this﹣A classroom of learners trying to work together to crack codes toward achieving the same ultimate goal. I am able to see leaders emerge, pick out my more observant learners and those who are hesitant, and find those who might need redirection along the way. All on Day 2.
Setting up norms is always our next feat. After the first team-centered days, we reflect on those experiences. We brainstorm. We look at photographs of their collaboration. We reflect about our feelings and experiences. My students make lists based on prompts from Jo Boaler:
- What are things you don’t like people to say or do when working together in a group?
- What are things you do like people to say or do when working together in a group?
Students begin their reflecting on their own, moving along to sharing in teams, then as a class. I then make a poster, which features our classroom norms from that conversation, along with pictures from the 100#s Task from Day 1. Every student is featured. Talk about collaboration and student-ownership! Half-page copies of the norms are made and glued onto the inside cover of students’ notebooks. We refer back to them frequently at the beginning of the year. What norms did we succeed with today? Which do we need to improve to make class better?
Teacher language also greatly impacts student-learning, in my opinion. Using phrases, like “Convince me!” or “Explain or show your reasoning,” prompt students to think beyond the value of a numerical answer. It moves their thinking to the Why in mathematics! Being conscious about not immediately validating a response works wonders too. Often times, students will give me an answer, and I’ll take the good ol’ Wait Time tool from my box of tricks, which, most times, will lead to the scholar continuing on with “because…” Admittedly, I need to work on my poker face in my wait time!
Another way I push my learners with my teacher language is by asking students to refine and revise their thinking daily. When we move from independent work to teamwork, I remind them. When we’re synthesizing as a class, I remind them. After handing back a formative assessment, I remind them. We’re on a constant pursuit to refine and revise in math class to build toward deeper understanding. As I’ve been making a point to use this vocabulary, I’ve also heard it from my scholars. During a task that required productive struggle and grit, I approached a table and a student began, “I’m going to revise my thinking, but here’s my question…” I think I had to ask her to repeat her question after she finished speaking. My choice of words and expectations made a difference in how the student shared her thought process with me and her teammates.
Feeling energized and genuinely interested is reflected in your teaching, in your presence in the classroom. On a Google Form I gave to my students in January, I posed the prompt, Sometimes, Mrs. Stipe _____, but not always. A student responded, “Sometimes Mrs. Stipe says that a certain lesson is her absolute favorite lesson, even though she says that about multiple lessons, but not always.” My students know I want to be there learning with them because I do! It’s reflected in my words and actions, which makes our community that much more safe and respected. And in turn, my students are excited to be in math class too!
Mathematicians move into new groups weekly, which seems really daunting, especially with the puzzling process of creating seating charts. Just thinking about seating charts gives me flashbacks to rearranging sticky notes on a scale drawing of my classroom. Yikes! Flippity.net allows me to quickly create random groups, and I can click names of students that I’d like to switch between teams. I display this on the board every Monday. Learners appreciate sitting with new people each week (or not being stuck with the same classmates), and picking a seat at one of my mismatched tables for the week is an added bonus. So, students are able to sit in new teams weekly, further developing our community based on respect, collaboration, and classroom norms. Check out the theory behind Visibly Random Groupings if this piques your interest!
Over the last two years, I’ve been studying and implementing the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussion by Smith and Stein. For specific tasks, I’ll prepare for discussion by anticipating students responses. During work time, the teacher-facilitator monitors for those strategies, and then selects and sequences them to produce the most productive discussion. Sharing strategies is not a show-and-tell style; ideas are carefully sequenced and connected to move students forward in their thinking. So, instead of picking the most eager learners or plucking raised hands from the crowd, ideas (which are sometimes misconceptions) are shared, in order, with reason. The teacher focuses on how to move forward thinking of scholars, keeping the specific lesson goals in mind. Sharing is purposeful and intentional. The community progresses and grows as all ideas are considered and connected; strategies are truly owned by the students because they are the authors and experts.
Building community is critical to deeper learning in your math classroom. Building trust and safety allows students to become confident in their ideas, even if they have a misunderstanding. When mistakes and learners as individuals are valued and embraced, growth can happen for all students. Set your expectations high and your students will soar as they develop the confidence to do so!
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