Asking Questions, Forming Equations

Some part of the ARRA money allocated to the Lowell Schools is being used to give teachers time to look at assessments and collect data about how our students best learn.  Grade level teams and cross-grade level data teams have formed since late summer all with the purpose of methodically looking at our assessment data and making decision about what to do next.  We use the ORID protocols to analyze our data while the mechanism for assessment of our own teaching is the process of Learning Walks.

My grade level, Grade 3, has been contemplating a mathematics inquiry that will help us improve our instruction and, ultimately our students’ learnings.  The development of the question has taken us in a circuitous route through methods for comprehending a particular operational skill (multiplication) to the question we’ve agreed upon this morning: What does best practice look like when we are teaching our students to generate or identify a correctly constructed equation matching a word problem situation.

We’ve noticed that our students, particularly our ELLs, meet the standards for whole number computation.  However, many students, regardless of whether or not they are ELLs or native speakers, cannot for the life of them select a reasonable equation to match the word or story problem.  This is critical mass for our kids — the bulk of the MCAS testing that will take place in the Spring requires students to decipher story problems in just this way.

Those of us who have a strong background in Constructivism dislike the very idea of teaching students “key” phrases:  for example, in all means to use an addition equation. Personally I feel that there are other ways to get kids to comprehend the problem and generate equations from their understandings.  I want my students to visualize the events in a story and be able to logically create an equation that will get them to an answer.

But what about of kids who have so many language issues that visualizing is not a strength? Is there another, better way? The data analysis tells us there has to be – at least with the students we are currently working with. As my colleagues and I work through this cycle of inquiry, we will be peeling away our preconceptions; this can be pretty scary.

Our next meeting will begin the process of researching what might work with our students, and maybe, we’ll invent something new.  Now that would be something!

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