By Teachers For Teachers: Changing the Culture of Math Class

By Heidi Fessenden (Learning Specialist, Mozart Elementary School), Maggie Roth (Second grade teacher, Match Community Day Public Charter School), and Michelle Sirois (Learning Specialist, Perry Elementary School)

This blog post is the second in a series of blogs written by the six teachers who designed and led a five-session class for Boston math teachers. Please check out the first post here.

At an early session of our teacher-led math course, Bridging Classrooms, we began by asking, “Please share something you’re thinking about connected to math in your classroom.”

Here’s a sampling of what we heard:

  • How do I make sure I’m not over-scaffolding?
  • I am trying to get my students to work more independently in math class.
  • I want my students to be more engaged and motivated to do math.
  • I want students to think, “does that make sense?” when they solve problems, so they’re not just using procedures.

If you’re a math teacher, you’re probably nodding your head right now.  

We have to do it all as math teachers: know content well, differentiate, motivate, play catch-up. It can be overwhelming. Often, we find that math PDs we attend don’t help. In creating this PD, hosted by the Boston Teachers Union, we were hoping that teachers would feel better supported and prepared for their classrooms. The teachers who took the class, special and general educators in grades 2-8, came from charter and public schools in the Boston area. Most took the class with a colleague from their school so that they could plan together and observe each other in between sessions.

Today we’ll share the effect Bridging Classrooms had on teachers. In our next post, we’ll explore why they think Bridging Classrooms altered their teaching.

What they got out of our class (how their classrooms changed):

During our final class we asked teachers to use the sentence stem “I used to _______, now I ______” to reflect on what they used to do to teach math and how that has changed. One teacher started with, “I used to rely on my comfortable bag of tricks and talk a lot.”

We could relate. It’s easy to get into a comfort zone and forget the myriad of strategies that push student thinking and engagement. As teachers reflected on what changed in their classrooms, a few themes emerged. Taken together, these themes could be summarized in one way: the culture of math changed in their classrooms. Below, we use the voices of participants to explain the many ways their math classes changed after this course.

Student-led, interactive lessons

Many of the teachers in the group spoke about making more space for student voices and group work. They found themselves talking less in order to increase student thinking.

  • I used to teach, teach, teach, teach math and never facilitate.
  • I used to be terrified of doing any kind of group work or partner work because I was nervous there would be one student doing all the work or they wouldn’t get along.
  • Now I step back and let my students take the lead in their learning, let them struggle.
  • Now I find that my students have been working with each other better than ever. They are using motivational language with their table groups and partners while also asking great mathematical questions to better understand their peers’ work.

Open-ended tasks (less focus on right answers)

Another common theme was that teachers began using more open-ended tasks in their classes, where the focus was on reasoning rather than on getting the right answer. Many of these were modeled on tasks we had done in our course, such as visual number talks, numberless word problems, noticing and wondering, and Three Act Tasks.

  • Now my students have started having positive conversations about math. Students became comfortable sharing their thinking, regardless if they were right or wrong.
  • Now I make a conscious effort to implement strategies that I learned from this class, particularly strategies in which there is no definitive right or wrong answers (i.e. “Give me a number that you think is too big to be the sum.”).
  • Now I start every math class with a visual without a question and allow students to notice and wonder before giving them a question.

Increased support for students with special needs

Retha Reynolds, a fifth grade teacher of a substantially separate classroom for students with learning disabilities at the Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale, shared how she entirely changed the structure of her math lessons, turning the leadership of the class over to the students, primarily through using Three Act Tasks. (Read a summary of the structure of a Three Act Task here, and see how Dan Meyer breaks one down here.) Early in the course, Retha talked about her doubt about how to increase discourse among students with special needs. “They kept saying, ‘less teacher talk,’” she explained. “I didn’t know how to do that in a special ed class.”

After Bridging Classrooms, she explained, “when I plan I think about how am I going to get them talking about the math before we get to the math we’re going to do.” She does this using images or scenarios and asking students what they notice and wonder before giving them a math problem to solve. When district administrators visited her class on a walk-through, they “couldn’t believe it was a special education class” because of the level of dialogue and engagement with the math content. “I don’t know what I would have done without Three Act Tasks,” Retha reflected. Other teachers mentioned that they also felt better equipped to support students with special needs after taking our course, even if they didn’t entirely adopt a new structure like Retha did.

As we listened to teachers describe how their classrooms were changing, we wondered what it was about this relatively brief course that had such an impact. We asked them, and in our next blog post we’ll share some of what we found out.

Melissa Frascella (Math Dept Chair / Eighth grade math teacher, Boston Collegiate Charter School), Meredith Hart (Sixth grade teacher, Haley Pilot School), and Alia Verner (Math Director / Instructional Coach, TechBoston Academy) also contributed to this blog post.

To learn more about Zeroing in on Math, click here.