Monthly Archives: June 2015

Intentional Talk Book Study, Chapter 2

I don’t know that I would ever recommend reading Intentional Talk cover to cover. I know that’s exactly what I’m doing this summer, but I can see why it might backfire with regards to changing teacher practice. Across 6 chapters, roughly 112 pages, the book goes in depth into 6 different ways to plan for and structure classroom conversation. The material is so rich, I can see teachers feeling overwhelmed attempting to put all of it into practice in a meaningful way.

In fact, that happened this past year at an elementary school in my district. The faculty did a book study of Intentional Talk, but by the end of the year there was little evidence that teachers were leading varied and intentional discussions. They liked what they read, sure, but trying to plan for and implement all these discussion types got pushed to the side because of numerous other demands on their time. They suffered from the problem of biting off more than they could chew.

This is a defeatist way to start a post, but the reason I’m leading with these thoughts is because I’ve been thinking about how to share this book with teachers and begin to help them successfully incorporate these ideas into their practice. My answer is to start with chapter 2.

Chapter 1 is excellent, don’t get me wrong. It provides rationale for why well-planned discussions are important, but honestly that chapter is only a must read for someone who craves background information or a reason to pursue this work. If you’re reading the book, you’ve probably already decided you want to learn more about facilitating classroom conversations. You aren’t looking for convincing. In that case, you probably want to jump right in and learn something new. So my advice is to skip chapter 1 (for now, at least) and move straight to chapter 2.

And then stop.

Seriously. Quit reading the book.

Take the time to apply what you learn in this one chapter. Believe me, there’s plenty to sustain you for a while! Take time to establish your classroom norms. They are critically important to creating the safe, respectful environment your students need before you start tackling the other discussion types. Take time to teach students the talk moves. Students need practice in learning what to say and how to say it. Let them practice. Let yourself practice! The talk moves are probably going to be new to you, too. Practice using them until you feel comfortable with them. That will take the pressure off when you do finally decide to tackle one of the targeted discussion types.

How long should you wait before picking the book up again? I have no idea. But chances are you’ll know when you’re ready. It might take a couple weeks, a month, or it might take a full semester, but at some point you’re going to notice that your students have gotten really good at sharing and discussing their strategies for solving problems. You’re going to realize that you know the talk moves like the back of your hand. That will be the time to branch out and ask yourself the question, “What other kinds of conversations could we be having?”

At this point, I might recommend reading pages 1-5 in chapter 1 to reconnect with the book and the principles that guide it. When you’re done, consult the table at the bottom of page 3 that provides a brief summary of the goals of each discussion type. Read through those and think about which type might support your students where they are currently in their math learning. After you choose one of the targeted discussion types, read the corresponding chapter and then stop. Quit reading the book again, and take the time to practice the new discussion type while continuing to do open strategy sharing.

Assuming you’re like most teachers, you’re going to teach more than one school year. There’s no reason you have to learn and master all these discussion types in one school year. The most important thing you can do is start by creating a classroom culture where students’ ideas are valued by you and their peers. Where students feel safe taking risks in sharing their ideas because they know everyone in the class is there to support each other in making sense of mathematics. Chapter 2 will help you with this goal. The rest of the book is great, but it can wait. No rush.

Intentional Talk Book Study, Chapter 1

“Math discussions aren’t just about show-and-tell: stand up, sit down, clap, clap, clap.”

Designing and implementing quality mathematical discussions takes effort. It’s not as easy as just having students get up and share their answers to a problem. But don’t let that turn you away from working to improve your practice! This is just chapter 1, after all, and there’s still so much to read and learn. In this chapter the authors lay out four principles that should guide our classroom discussions:

  1. Each discussion should have a goal. This means thinking in advance what it is mathematically you want students to get out of the discussion.
  2. Be explicit! Students likely don’t come to you with the skills needed to participate in classroom discussions. The teacher’s role is to help the students learn what they should be sharing and how they should be sharing it.
  3. Students should be talking and responding to one another. It’s easy in a classroom “discussion” for all comments from students to be directed at you, the teacher. Instead the discussion should be a conversation amongst all the students around a particular mathematical idea.
  4. Students must believe that they can make sense of math, and their ideas are valuable, even when they aren’t fully correct. There’s a lot of learning to be found in mistakes, and we need to value those as much as correct answers. Getting students to share means they have to be willing to take risks, and as teachers our job is to make our students feel safe to do so.

In addition to presenting these guiding principles, this chapter also differentiates two types of classroom discussion: open strategy sharing and targeted discussion. Open strategy sharing is what many teachers already do to some degree in their classrooms. This is when you let students share their answers and solutions to a problem. The goal is to get a variety of responses out in the open. 

However, sometimes you have a particular mathematical goal you want to focus on, such as having the students justify why a particular strategy works. That’s when you would use a targeted discussion instead. These types of classroom discussion are much more nuanced and planning for each one is different. This is why open strategy sharing only has one chapter in the book while 5 chapters are focused on the different types of targeted discussion:

  • Compare and Connect – comparing similarities and differences among strategies
  • Why? Let’s Justify – justifying why a certain strategy works
  • What’s Best and Why? – determining the best (most efficient) strategy in a particular situation
  • Define and Clarify – defining and discussing how to use models, tools, notation, etc. appropriately
  • Troubleshoot and Revise – determining which strategy produces a correct solution or figuring out what went wrong with a particular strategy

The chapter includes three vignettes to help illustrate the differences between open strategy sharing and targeted discussion. I love how the authors insert comments about the intentional decision-making the teacher did throughout each conversation. It shows early on in the book that the teacher isn’t being herded into some lock-step approach. Rather, at every moment you have the power to guide and steer the conversation based on the needs of your students.

One thing that really stood out to me that I didn’t catch the first time I read this chapter is that it’s okay to stop a conversation and come back to it later. I know as a teacher I often let conversations run so long that I wouldn’t get to other things I had planned. In my mind the conversation was so great, it was okay that we were cutting into our next subject by 10-15 minutes. I think this speaks to how I wasn’t planning my discussions in advance. I just let them happen and let them run their course for as long as they were interesting. As the vignettes in this chapter show, however, important mathematical topics can be discussed over several class periods instead of trying to cram it all in to one sitting.

The other thing that stood out to me was how these discussions have the power to give a voice to all our students, not just the high achievers or the outspoken ones. Creating a sense of community where all ideas are valued and respected allows all children the opportunity to be heard and to demonstrate what they understand about math. As the authors say in the book, there are many different ways to be smart in mathematics:

  • making connections across ideas
  • representing problems
  • working with models
  • figuring out faulty solutions
  • finding patterns
  • making conjectures
  • persisting with challenging problems
  • working through errors
  • searching for efficient solutions

How much more exciting to look for and honor these skills in our students rather than seeking out just correct answers! Just think of what valuing these skills tells students about what it means to learn and do mathematics.

Intentional Talk: A Casual, Summer-Long Book Study

I started reading Intentional Talk way back in December. I loved what I was reading, but with many other demands on my time, I was only able to read a chapter here and there before leaving it by the wayside altogether.

Fast forward to now and what do I stumble upon? Some fabulous folks on Twitter are doing a book study throughout the summer, reading just one chapter per week. I can totally handle that! You probably can too! Here’s a flyer with all the details:

If you’re unfamiliar with the slow chat format, basically it means there is no set time to chat. Rather, during the week questions will be posted using the #intenttalk hashtag and you can read and respond whenever it fits your schedule. How convenient is that?

I will point out that the chat did start last week. So depending on when you get your copy of the book, you might have to play a bit of catch up, but don’t worry, you’re not that far behind. Here’s a schedule to show you how the reading is broken up week by week. Take note of the moderator next week for chapter 3, none other than Elham Kazemi, one of the authors of the book! How often do you get to take part in a book study where the author participates? This is awesome!

If you’ve gotten to this point and you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t even know what this book is about. Why should I even bother reading it? Good question!

In the book’s Foreward by Megan Franke, she lists numerous reasons why classroom conversations are crucial for mathematical learning:

  • Students achieve mathematically when they explain the details of their mathematical ideas, when they engage with the details of other’s mathematical ideas, and when others engage with their own mathematical ideas.
  • Engaging in mathematical conversations in productive ways can help students see themselves as smart and competent in mathematics.
  • Students learn to listen to others, ask insightful and respectful questions, and reflect on their own understandings.

Be prepared. This is challenging work, but it is also greatly rewarding work that is worth our time and effort. The authors lay out the vision, but they also provide support through vignettes from primary and intermediate classrooms, guiding principles to help you make decisions, and planning tools to help you get started. And with a community of folks participating on Twitter, you’ll have lots of support to ask questions and share ideas. I hope to see you throughout the summer!

November in June

Today marks the first day of CAMT 2015 (The Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching). If you’ve never heard of CAMT, then it means you probably don’t live in Texas. We’re such a large state, we have our own NCTM-like conference every summer.

The keynote I attended this morning – there were two going on simultaneously – was given by a guy named Alan November. I had never heard of him before today, but I’m happy I know who he is now.

His speech had two primary themes and both resonated with me. The first is that we should focus on moving beyond the classroom walls towards building networks. He gave the example of a first grade teacher named Ms. Cassidy. She not only has a blog, but she also has a Twitter account. Using social media, her class has connected with other classes from around the globe, and they share their learning with one another. 

One of the ways they do this is through  Math Talk Grade 1 (#mtgr1). Problems are posed to the hashtag, and the students tweet out their solutions through the teacher’s account. In some ways this isn’t special at all. Everyday in classrooms across the country teachers pose problems and students solve them. The difference? An audience! Students are able to see how students from all over the world solved the exact same problem! How cool do you think it is for a class of 7-year-olds to browse through answers from students in Canada? How much cooler is it for them to discover they have a different, possibly better, answer than a student in Italy?

Does this spark your curiosity? Want to try this out for yourself? You’re in luck! You can join the Global Math Task Twitter Exchange taking place during the 2015-16 school year. They’re looking for folks in grades K-12, so if you teach one of those grades, sign up on the Google doc linked on the site and enjoy! If you’re in grades K-5, tweet out to #ElemMathChat from time to time to raise awareness of this exciting opportunity.

The other theme from this morning’s keynote was the importance of students’ voices. It basically comes down to this, teachers, as experts in their field, know too much to fully understand the perspective of students learning the content for the first time. This is known as the curse of knowledge. But students? They can totally relate to one another since they’re all in about the same place educationally. And it just so happens that kids like to talk to one another.

How does this relate to education? One way is by having students create videos for each other explaining concepts, strategies, ideas, etc. Alan gave the example of a class where students were given the choice of creating a tutorial video for homework or the students could do a typical homework worksheet with 10 or so problems.

He shared the story of one student who chose to create a video which turned out to be only about 3 minutes long. When asked how long it took to make the video, the student said 3 hours! The student knew the regular homework assignment would have only taken 10-15 minutes to complete. Her reasoning for doing the video? Homework doesn’t help anybody. The teacher already knows the answers. She made the video instead because it would help her friends.

Alan also shared part of a keynote speech given by Shilpa Yarlagadda. She realized she only had access to her teachers during the school day. At night her resources were her boring textbook or videos made by adults who drone on and on for 10-15 minutes. Her solution? Create her own videos and share them on YouTube. What makes her work special is that in addition to sharing content, she was able to use stories to make it relatable to other kids.

It turns out there are lots and lots of student-created videos out there. One place to find them is Mathtrain.TV. Now, just because students are making their own videos, don’t think that the teacher can just sit back and do nothing. In fact, the role of the teacher becomes Editor-in-Chief. Unsurprisingly, kids make mistakes in their videos all the time, and without guidance their movies can frankly suck. Just because they can relate to their peers doesn’t mean they know how to produce engaging, accurate videos. They need the support of their teachers to point out mistakes and help them learn how to revise their work, similar to how teachers already support students when writing stories.

As a blogger and tweeter for nearly three years, I see the advantages social media and networking have had for me professionally, and I’m excited that more and more school districts are opening up these tools to students and teachers to use in their learning and work. They provide authentic audiences and leverage the ability of students to relate to one another on their own level.