Well, That Was Ugly

I have always thought it important for students to learn to work cooperatively. When I worked in the private sector, we worked as teams or groups – almost never without some kind of interaction with colleagues.  Kids need to know how to work in collaborations, too.  

And so, we set out this week to work in cooperative groups to create “rules” for defining two-dimensional polygons.

I modeled the expected outcome (a chart listing the attributes of the four polygons each group was investigating). I semi-randomly created groups of 4 students with one eye on creating a heterogeneous group. Defined and had students take on group jobs – recorders, materials, etc. And sent the groups on their merry way to focus on the task.

Which failed miserably. Why? Because despite our attention to polite dialogue (one student ended up telling her group to “shut the hell up”), the task of working with others needed to be broken down further. Even the simple – or so I thought – task of choosing one out of the four to record on chart paper was unattainable. I ended up spending much of the period on how to choose a recorder, what the responsibilities might be for the materials manager, etc.

Clearly, this is something my students and I need to work on aggressively. After we re-gathered in our meeting spot to talk about what was not working, I knew we needed to work much more diligently on getting along in a group so that the task (remember that?) actually is completed.

Yes, this is a very egocentric group; many try to have private conversations with me at the same time! But we need to learn how to get along in a group and how to negotiate working under group dynamics.

And that, my friends, was the take-away from that math lesson.



Fasten Your Seatbelts…..

It’s going to be a bumpy night.” I love this quote from “All About Eve”; and coming straight from Bette Davis’ mouth – well you can imagine the delivery.

The more thinking is done about the implementation of the new mathematics curriculum frameworks – the Common Core – the more it becomes apparent that this is going to be a major, that is MAJOR, implementation.

Looking at it from a third grade teacher perspective – students will come to third grade with near mastery, if not mastery, of place value AND mastery (that is spelled out) of addition and subtraction facts — all of them.  Historically, that has not been the case; students coming to third grade often have a shaky grasp of place value and most definitely we spend lots of the beginning of the year on addition & subtraction facts. Honestly, there are some children who do not leave THIRD grade having memorized/mastered these facts.  That’s a post for another day though.

What this means to me is that, for the next year – or possibly two – we will straddle two grade levels of work. It is clear what the expectations of students leaving third grade and going to fourth are. (Click here to download the PDF or Word version); but there will also be some catching up to do for second graders coming in to third this September.  I’m sure other teachers at grade levels above and below my own grade level will feel the same.

And to add to the pressure, by 2014 the Spring testing will have completely transitioned to the new Common Core standards. Here’s a link to DESE’s plan to transition test items.  In other words, transition quickly and get working on mastery of the new standards.

Will we be ready – I sure hope so. Because not only will there be new standards to be responsible for, the test results will be linked to my own evaluation as a teacher.

I have a feeling that fastening my seatbelt isn’t going to be much help here.

Circle and Stars

I don’t remember when I first came across this game — I suspect it was during a Math Solutions Summer workshop week. For certain, it is included in several of the multiplication resources Math Solutions publishes, including the Third Grade Month-by-Month resource.

It is empowering to find a game that children can just pick up and play. Circle and Star uses only a dice and a piece of scrap paper. Sometimes I get creative/fancy and use some wooden cubes that I have numbered from 5 to 10 so when the children play the game they’ll have some larger numbers to work with.

So here’s what we do:

1.  Roll the die once. The number that comes up is the number of circles you need to draw on your scrap paper.

2. Roll the die a second time (or alternatively, roll the 5-10 die). The number that comes up is the number of stars to be drawn in  each circle.

3. Write the resulting multiplication fact as number of circles times number of stars in each circle.  Compute the product.

When we begin playing this game, I have students write the resulting multiplication fact 3 different ways:

NOTE: C = number of circles, S = number of stars

C groups of S equals Product
C S’s = product (use the number words)
C x S = Product

The students always are looking for this game on our Daily Five Math board. We both like it – the kids because it’s fun, and I like it as a way to keep students practicing those important multiplication facts.

The Infamous 3N8

It is my — and their — nemesis:

3.N.8 Select and use appropriate operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to solve problems, including those involving money.

My students can perform computation into the thousands. We are pretty darn good at it. But toss a word/story problem in their direction and everything falls apart.  Why can’t these kids figure out an appropriate equation and operation from the words? It is really quite a pain.

Remembering the challenge of second language learners — and the nuance of the English language — partially explains why these kids have such a tough time deciding what operation and equation makes sense. I’ve resisted the urge to teach key wording because it doesn’t always fit the situation. And the standardized testing we foist on these kids often doesn’t follow the “formula.” Besides, I want them to think and to know what they need to find a solution.

So this week, I’ve started applying a teaching strategy we used to teach in another school for visualizing. Explicitly teaching students to visualize seems to me like the only way they are ever going to figure out if the answer – the result – should grow or shrink. Which I hope will lead the students to a reasonable equation for that computation they seem to do so well. It just so happens that the students are not very strong visualizers when it comes to reading either.

What I do know is that unless I can convince the students to thoughtfully consider the action in a story problem, to visualize what the situation is, all the computational skill that they have acquired will mean next to nothing.

Daily Five and Math

This year I’ve made an attempt to follow the “Sisters” in implementing the Daily Five and the Literacy Cafe. So far, I’m happy with what is starting to take shape. Conferencing is more focused. Tracking those kids who need more than a once a month reading conference, keeping kids accountable through the Literacy Cafe Menu, all are clearly going to be helpful when presenting a case at an RTI meeting.

Now if the Daily Five can help me with getting to those students who need some extra one-to-one support, maybe it can help with meeting the needs of students in mathematics.  The Sisters are way ahead of me on this one — the Math Daily Five provides a way to organize “guided mathematics”.  In my classroom, the five categories that I’m playing with are: Math Fact Drills, Landmark Math Games, Exploring Data, Problem Solving, and Featured Activity.  The math fact activities are games – electronic and otherwise – that provide fluency practice in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  Landmark Games are the “go to” games we teach throughout our third grade Investigations in Number, Data, and Space units and include games like “Close to 100/1000”, “Capture on a 300 Chart” and “Fraction Cookies”. Exploring Data is a new category — our school has identified interpreting, representing, and constructing data as a focus for this year. Activities in these categories will provide students with activities for practice. I want my students to solve problems in context and I have been providing a problem for students to solve and later share solutions in this category. Finally, in the Featured Activity category, we will work on explorations that accompany the launches for the daily Investigations lesson.

I want to keep the launches down to about 15 minutes – whether it’s a model launch or a discussion. This isn’t easy for me. But by limiting my talk, and getting kids actively involved in activities while I meet with smaller needs-based groups, we should be able to make some progress toward students meeting Grade 3 Math Standards.

Will it be noisy? I’m sure it will be. Just like the Daily Five and Literacy Cafe, I’ll need to build students’ stamina for staying on task. But in the end it should be worth the time it will take – hopefully we can work smarter not longer.

Bumping Up

It’s a rite of passage, I guess. Yesterday my third graders bumped up to meet their fourth grade teachers.  My students were pretty evenly distributed across the four  fourth grade classrooms so while they will see some familiar faces next Fall, they will have an opportunity to meet new friends.

While my current kids were down the hallway, my “new” class came to the room to be introduced. There are 24 students currently on my list and, while I’m sure that number will change – hopefully not too much higher – the proof that the students change and grow throughout third grade was very apparent.  These kids looked (and acted) so much younger! Several children were so much shorter than my current students that the desks seemed gigantic; several chins just made it to the desktop.

The incoming students have lots of questions – learning to multiply is definitely something they are anticipating with excitement. And writing in cursive, too. When they return to me on August 31, we will spend much of our first few weeks together learning signals and routines that make the management of a class more, well, manageable.  We will learn to become the community of learners that my current third graders have become.

So while I was energized to meet some fresh faces – and perhaps a few new challenges – I was glad to spend another few hours with my grown up third graders. And to savor the changes that 180 days bring.

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!