Our school teaches math conceptually so there has certainly been lots to learn. While Math always came easy to me as a student that doesn't always make for the best teacher. Because it came easily, I always got the right answer but couldn't always explain how I got the answer! It's a lot like reading comprehension. You understand an inference but it's difficult to explain how and why you understood it! That is a real handicap when you are trying to explain strategies to young Mathematicians! Most recently Tracy and I have been teaching a unit on Measurement. While we have done most of the lessons as they are outlined in the book, Tracy just didn't feel like the majority of our students were grasping the more difficult concepts - especially as we moved into word problems. We had discussed our approaches with our office mate Suzanne Shall who is our Standards Coach, so finally Tracy just asked her if she would teach a simple lesson that we could incorporate into our on-going review that is the Skills-based part of our Math instruction. This short part that we call EDC (Every Day Counts) is a 10-15 minute introduction to our hour long Math Workshop.
What a great opportunity to watch a Master at work. I learned so many simple things! First of all, Suzanne used the white boards! Now why hadn't we ever thought of using the white boards for this introductory work? We use them all the time in Skills Block, but for some reason, we'd never thought to use them in Math! Using the white boards made a difference because we could gather the students close and easily look to see if they were getting the skill, instead of having them working at their tables. There, it was harder to see at a glance if the majority of students were getting a skill! Besides, we don't need to kill trees EVERY day!
Suzanne also approached the Math word problem much like we are approaching retelling in Readers' and Writers Workshops'. She started with, "And who are the main characters in this problem?" Main characters? While I have had students close their eyes and visualize the action in a Math story problem, I had never thought to have them understand and underline main characters and use those labels/names as they show their work. Duh!
Another simple technique that had never occurred to me was to use color. I am teaching retelling right now in reading and writing so I write the beginning of the story in one color, the middle in another color and the ending in still another color to show the different parts of a retelling. It's not like I didn't know that using different colors helps students see differences, but I had never applied that knowledge to Math! As Suzanne showed the hops of one animal on a number line she used one color, a different color to show the hops of the second animal, and then a third color to show the difference. Such a simple technique that helped students visualize the differences.
I especially liked when Suzanne said, "Now this is a little trick that mathematician use..." I could have been sitting in Lucy Calkins' summer institute listening to her say, "Now readers this is a trick that really good readers use..." It's like they are letting you in on some really top secret strategy now that you are in the club of the "really smart"! The students just automatically lean in to hear that little inside secret and you have them hooked.
It's not that I didn't learn some Math concepts along the way (such as when I was comparing hops that I needed to start my number line at 0!) or that the level of questioning that Suzanne used included so many beginnings with "why?" but there were just so many little things that just jumped out at me. That is why I feel so fortunate to be in a school that encourages teachers to demonstrate lessons for each other. I couldn't help but think if we had a demo ready - just one for every unit - how helpful it would be to teachers at all levels of their development.
Thanks Suzanne for making me think and for changing my teaching practice. Next time you're listening in from the office, make sure to notice how I am incorporating all your little hints and tricks!