Post #5 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written after the teaching week on Sunday morning while savoring a cup of coffee– well, three cups of coffee.
All posts in this blog series can be found here.
A few years ago, I was given the best advice about teaching math that I have ever received.
“Christina, you will start feeling more comfortable with teaching math as soon as you make the decision to approach it in the same way you teach literacy.”
Those words, spoken by my friend and then math coach, Mangla Oza, have stayed with me years later. Mangla’s words have propelled my math thinking and my students’ math learning forward since that day.
Like many of you, as an elementary school teacher, I am responsible for teaching all subjects- not just the subjects that I have most intensely studied as a student myself. If you’ve taken a look at the requirements of elementary school teachers, or if you are one yourself, you know that this is no easy feat. In my multiple subject, self contained, fifth grade classroom, lesson design, implementation, reflection, and redesign is a constant process- the kids are new each year, therefore so are many things I do. No two classes ever receive the exact same experience- nor should they!
So, for the past few years now, I’ve held Mangla’s words close. Those words have actually guided much of what I do across the entire teaching day. I now approach math (and all the other elementary school subjects) with the same thinking that guides my reading and writing decision making.
When thinking of a new lesson, I first think about what my students already know. Then, I consider ways to get them interested. More often than not, the way to get them interested is to tap into their curiosity and invite them into inquiry.
I attempted this on Thursday and Friday when we we started a study of circles. That’s right- Pi Day came late to fifth grade in room A1 at Nixon School this year. Back in March, on March 14th specifically when Pi day is traditionally celebrated in schools, we weren’t in a place in our studies where we could just throw in Pi. It would have been out of place and not exactly meaningful. Now that we are concluding our geometry unit, I thought I’d introduce it. I knew the interest was there, and gauged that my kids were ready to dig into this study based on many different assessments- informal conversations, observation during group and individual work, and student math work samples.
After some informal assessment- asking who was familiar with pi and how to measure the dimensions of a circle and listening to partner talk, we dove into inquiry using this web page on Smithsonian’s site: A World Full of Circles.
As an entire class, we viewed the first two circles on the page as a group. I invited students to ask and jot down questions, describe what they noticed, and to think about these circles using our first draft of a guiding question: Why are circles important?
After doing this with the first two images, I invited students to go through this process on their own or with a partner. So, they busily got to work observing, wondering, noticing, questioning, chatting, and jotting…
After my students’ exploration time, we shared our thinking, questions, wonderings, noticings, and observations as a whole group. My entire goal for this first day was to get students thinking and wondering about circles and why they are important. Well, as a group, we came to realize that important was not exactly the best word. We revised our initial guiding question of why are circles important, and narrowed down our new guiding question to a few contenders:
Why do developers make communities and other places circular?
Why and how are circles so often found in nature?
How can circles be made to look perfectly symmetrical?
What more can we learn about circles to apply our own lives?
The next day in class, we revisited circles. We talked a bit about our ideas from the day before and angled our workshop time to explore circles found in the classroom. So, I invited the fifth graders on an exploration of sorts- I invited them to view the classroom in a way they never had in their first 164 days there. I invited them to view it as a place to explore circles.
After student exploration around the classroom, I then introduced a way for us to think about how mathematicians might start to measure and compare circles. I wrote terminology used when thinking about circles on the whiteboard, modeled how to measure the different aspects of a circle under the document camera, and then invited students to try it on their own with the circles they found in the classroom. So, off they went to explore measuring circles…
Many students in class already had background experience with this vocabulary, as is evidenced in some of their writing from the day before. But, for others, it was brand new.
Having the time to think about this terminology, apply it to the work they did in discovering and exploring circles around the classroom, and then ultimately reflecting on what they learned through discussion and writing (some examples of this are seen below), naturally provided access points for all students. They all came to this work with different understandings about circles, and were all offered a way to explore them that hopefully fit their academic and intellectual needs.
In reflecting on the past two days’ math lessons, I’m realizing that the more I infuse the moves of good literacy instruction into my math lessons, the more engaged my students are with the work. The more engaged they are with the work, the more they will benefit from it.
Some of these moves I borrowed from literacy instruction included invitation into inquiry, reading and viewing images and descriptions, lots of group and partner discussion, writing to question/wonder, writing to think, writing to discover, and writing to reflect.
I used to think infusing literacy into other subjects meant reading aloud a picture book to go along with a lesson. I still think this is a good practice, but I now know that this practice needs to be a bit more intentional…
On Thursday, the first day of this study, I decided to read aloud a picture book that I felt would complement the lesson nicely. If you’re an upper elementary teacher or middle school math teacher, you probably guessed correctly that I read aloud Sir Cumference and the First Round Table. During the first few pages, my fifth graders loved the clever play on words, and even tried to figure out the math diagrams displayed on the pages. Then, the conversation took a different direction altogether…
"Why is it all men at the round table?"
"The one woman is solving problems and not getting any credit."
"That's not right."
"But, it's fiction!"
"Well, the author could have decided to make things different."
I couldn’t help but smile inside when this conversation arose. It certainly isn’t one I intended, but it was an unintended bonus. My thinking then went into a different place. I thought that maybe this isn’t the best book to share with my students because it perpetuates the misguided idea that men need to be in charge. However, without this book, this conversation wouldn’t have happened on Thursday. It’s just something more to reflect on, and should probably be a whole blog post on its own.
Who knew our math learning could take us in so many different, yet really important directions! I’m really looking forward to continuing this exploration next week.
Magic seems to happen when the moves of literacy instruction are infused into math class. Perhaps there are many math teachers out there who knew this all along. I’m still on my learning journey with this idea, and it’s a wonderful journey to be on!
Now, imagine if instead I just assigned my students a worksheet?