The start of the school year is one of the most important moments for my classes. Setting the right tone and attitude right from the beginning can mean buy-in from students right away – and conversely, a bad start can be really tough to recover from. I had a pretty good start this year in my Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classes. I wanted to share some things that worked for me in case someone else might benefit, and to document the week, as I may repeat much of this work next year.
I have several goals for how I want my classroom to “be,” and the first week is a chance to work on some of the big picture ways that we will be working together this year.
- It is important to me that as a group, we celebrate scholarship – and the struggles involved in becoming scholars
- I want to nurture a love of learning and of curiosity
- Our classroom has to be a safe place to take chances and to make mistakes
- We need to be able to work collaboratively – even more than in other subjects, I believe that we really need to see how others think in order to understand math
- To that end, we need to learn to be comfortable talking (and arguing!) about math
- We need to work independently as well, and to trust and value our own ideas
- We need to respect each other, and hopefully to love each other at least a little. Of course I love all of them.
I used a series of activities (all sourced from the MTBoS of course) to try to help establish this culture.
DAY 1: What does it take to do math?
Very first thing, I assigned each student a “secret partner” for the week, based on this idea from Origins. Students are to observe their partner throughout the week, and are responsible to report back an acknowledgement of something positive that they observed at the end of the week. The payoff for this happens on day 5. Next, I introduced a version of Jasmine’s Tabletop Twitter. I set up 5 stations around the room. Each had chart paper with a question/prompt on it. Students moved around the room in two minute rotations, and were asked to respond silently to each question. I followed Jasmine’s lead in asking students to take a marker and write their name with that marker, so we could look back and see who had authored each comment. My five prompts were:
- Why do we learn math?
- What will make our math class a good learning environment?
- What does it take to be a good math student?
- Respond to this quote: “Mathematics is not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where the explorers often get lost.” – W. S. Anglin
- Add a song to our class playlists. Write a genre instead of a song if you prefer.
At the last station, I gave out this Capture your thoughts organizer, and asked students to synthesize and summarize the most important points from their station, to add anything they thought was missing, and then report back to the whole group. We hung our new “posters” in the hall on this year’s “Sweet Wall Of Math,” to help establish that our work will be public this year and we are proud to show our thinking to the world. I’ll use the ideas they shared to create our learning agreements for the year. For anyone who would like more detailed plans for day 1, I’ve written them up just for you: Day 1 Plans. :)
Day 2: How can we create the questions?
I am totally convinced of the positive impact that Dan Meyer’s 3-Act format can have an a group of math students, so I was excited to introduce 3-Act math tasks right away on day 2. Students are so used to arriving in math class, and just imitating the teacher that they often don’t know how to react when they are asked to think of a question themselves, and then asked to figure out what they actually need to do to solve their question. The first tasks like this can be really tough and even painful, often for some of the “top” students.
The Super Bear was a nice one for both groups. The math was easily accessible, which gave us room to learn the structure of how we should approach these kinds of tasks. I made a new 3 Act handout for students to use, and guided them through the process. I was strict about keeping silence in the room for the entirety of Act 1, except when they were asked to share their guesses and to establish a high/low range. I stressed the importance of this “grappling” time, when they get to really think for themselves without the bias of hearing others’ ideas, and promised that they would get to work together for the rest of the task. This is one of the important routines in my class, and is one of the few rules I impose on the group without their input. Every group suggested weighing the bears, and several came up with ideas for how to measure volume (displacing in water, melting down the bears…). Act 3 provided some rich discussion about the discrepancy between their solutions and the revealed answer, and the drama of the reveal of Act 3 can’t be beat! Even reluctant students can’t look away as the gummy bears are weighed out.
Day 3: Metaphors for perseverance.
We spent much of our class playing the Game About Squares. I followed Annie Fetter’s suggestion to try this out with students, and read her post about this several times, so it was fresh in my head. She has a clarity about the importance of these tasks that I wanted to hold on to, emulate, and embody for this lesson. This is a game that does everything that we want in our math classes. It meets kids where they are, and little by little gives them slightly more challenging tasks to accomplish. I (mostly)refused to help them at all, but made it clear that they were expected to figure out what to do. After some initial discomfort with the whole idea that they were going to be playing an on screen game, and that I wouldn’t help, they dove in. They grappled, made mistakes, started over, helped each other, groaned, and persevered. They were competitive and proud when they solved each level. We used the last 15-20 minutes to debrief the activity, to list the things that helped us succeed, and to respond to a short survey. We talked about how these skills actually encompass just about everything that they need to be successful math thinkers. Interesting that the number one thing they did that helped them to be successful in this game was to make mistakes. I bet that we will be referring back to this often.
Annie Fetter is the best. Just Saying.
Day 4: Number flexibility: You mean there’s more than one answer?
Day four, we worked on the four 4s. This has been a favorite of mine since I began working with students. It allows for multiple approaches and creativity in math thinking. I’ve written about it further here and here. This year, I decided to keep it to one class period. In groups of 3, I challenged Algebra 1 students to create every number from 1-20, and Algebra 2 to shoot for 1-30. We put their work out on our Sweet Wall, and they may go later to try to fill in any blanks. Jo Boaler and the Youcubed team put together an excellent week of inspirational math, which began with this activity. The rest of the inspirational week’s activities were tough to resist. There are some good ones in there, along with great growth-mindset messages for students. I may get back to the others later in the year if we have time. I did play her day one video, and led a short discussion hinting at growth mindset to end Thursday’s class. I was also especially tempted to jump on the explicit growth mindset work that Julie Reulbach has shared, but we can’t do everything. I will be following Julie’s reflections closely to see how her implementation goes this year.
Day 5: Assessing Numeracy + Mathematical Drama.
Trying to do Algebra without a solid understanding of arithmetic is rough. I’ve seen students suffer through this, and it is not easy for me or for them, and there just isn’t the time during Algebra 2 to work on dividing fractions or operations with negative numbers. So we’re implementing an after school numeracy workshop this year for grade 8, 9, and 10 students who need more support in this area. We used this class to assess students’ arithmetic skills, and to identify those who might be most helped by the after school program.
I saved the last 20 minutes of class to follow up on the secret partners activity, and for a read-aloud. Secret partners takes just a few minutes, but has a nice impact on student attitudes. They act reluctant to speak nicely about each other, but they are grateful for this opportunity to celebrate each other’s good qualities. Comments ranged from “I noticed A looking out for the new student at lunch” to “Y worked really hard on the science lab” to “X is really funny and cracked me up in English yesterday.” I ended the week by reading the introduction to Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea. This is an excellent book, and the introduction is high drama! And kids just like to be read to.
Although we didn’t get deep into new content this week, we did some valuable math together. But equally important is the positive feeling that students left with on Friday afternoon. With confidence in themselves from their successes, with trust in each other and the knowledge that their peers notice their positive behaviors, and with the assumption that their teacher cares about them, we are set up for the year. Now we need to hold on to this feeling when the going gets rougher!