Saturday, December 5, 2015

Characteristics of a successful math lesson:Our day...your thoughts?

In Room 118 (one-eighteen) today, it was one of those days when everything came together into a beautiful mathematics symphony!
Figure 1: Solutions portrayed akin to Japanese bansho
Students and teachers alike were moved to comment on the power of the fraction lesson including the student that commented, "I love it when we talk about a math problem this way because it helps me really understand math and answers the questions I have."

The questions I am asking now are why, how and what? Why was it successful for all? How did it all come together? What did we all do that made it work? The reason...we want every day to be like today for the shear joy of learning mathematics!

In Room 118 we have a math structure we call the Problem of the Day. There are 4 parts, currently, to the Problem of the Day: Math by Myself, where the students work alone for at least 10 minutes, as the teachers observe student work around the room; Plus Power, where we pair-share; Knowledge Multiplier, where we share our ideas and build on these ideas about the problem as a whole group; and finally, Reflection, where we individually respond in our math journals to the question, "What did this problem make you think about in math today? Why or how?" We have been using this structure since the beginning of the school year including today during our math symphony. So what made today special?

We began our study of fractions a few weeks ago. I decided I wanted to seek out some expert advice on the teaching of fractions so I went to Empson & Levi's book, Extending Children's Mathematics, Fraction and Decimals, and read/refreshed my understanding of equal sharing and multiple group problems. I wanted to pursue a multiple group problem but felt that we needed to scaffold to that type of problem via the route of equal sharing. The authors suggested using a problem that would produce equivalent fraction solutions so I adapted one of their problems:

 "There are 6 candy bars [I used oranges,] for 8 children to share. If each child got the same amount, how much would each child get?" (p. 35)

I knew this problem would be challenging for my students because it produced an answer that would be less than one whole. The 4th graders never cease to amaze me with their thinking and today was no exception.  The many paths to their solutions of 3/4 and 6/8 were intriguing, as well as the rich discussion we would have about each of the solutions presented.  I would say that the majority of the students had an entry point into the problem, during Math by Myself, which contributed greatly to the successful symphony.  I also believe it met most of the students' "intellectual need," something they could really dig into versus just doing a math problem.  Many started splitting the oranges into halves and found that they had too many pieces (12) so some tried thirds while other move quickly to fourths which led to the 3/4 soltuion.  Some combined the halves and fourths and found each child had 1/2 + 1/4 pieces.  A handful of students focused on the fact that there were 8 children in the problem so they divided one orange into eighths by using fraction circle manipulatives.  They moved onto a solution of 6/8s because they knew they had 6 oranges.  I should mention that we have not formally talked about adding or subtracting fractions but they naturally moved to adding the 6 one-eighths to find 6/8.  (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2: Student work that produces a solution of 6/8.
As happens most days, the children completed their Math by Myself work at various paces.  After about 13 minutes I announced that anyone who wished to compare ideas with a partner could move to a designated spot in the room but those who wished to continue their own thinking could do so at their desk.  About half moved and half stayed, which is typical.  Excitement filled the air as they connected with their partner's ideas and wondered why some found 3/4 pieces and others 6/8.  We continued sharing in pairs for 7-8 minutes.

With everyone buzzing, we shifted to the carpet area where we had space to share our ideas on our giant white board in the tradition of the Japanese bansho.  (See Figure 1.)  The first student that shared is someone who is more inclined to follow than lead but this is the student who had found the 6/8 solution and was very proud of her work so she wanted to share.  Many of the students were curious about her solution since the majority had found a solution of 3/4.  At this juncture I tried out a more intentional process of sharing...something known in the math education world as "intentional talk."  I will pause my description of the whole class conversation for a moment to discuss my pursuit of intentional talk.

I have felt that the math conversations in Room 118 were more about sharing-out than truly listening-to and learning from each other.  I went on a mission to find out how to improve our conversations so that all students could learn by contributing, or in the words of SMP 3, to be able to "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others."  Through Twitter, I have discovered many like-minded colleagues including one in Toulouse, France, Simon Gregg (@Simon_Gregg and his blog, whose rich classroom work directed me towards the idea of intentional talk and the illuminating books by Kazemi & Hintz, Intentional Talk, and Russell, Schifter and Bastable, Connecting Arithmetic to Algebra. By reading postings on Simon's blog and these books I found ideas and methods to make our conversations more intentional.  I am just beginning my informal research and implementation of this work but I decided to take a few ideas and try them out during our conversation today.

Now, returning to our discussion.  I told the students I wanted us to have a conversation today that included all the voices in our class.  Today, if you shared, you would conclude your sharing by asking the other students if they had any "questions and comments" (terminology we use in our Responsive Classroom Morning Meetings when we share) related to their idea.  My role was to make sure we stayed true to that process.  Fourth graders are by nature very eager to share their own ideas but sometimes are challenged to listen to each other.  By making this a part of our conversation structure we did indeed hear from many voices, who don't often contribute, through their questions and comments.  The roof really came off the school building when the conversations zoomed in on how we could have three solutions: 6/8, 3/4 and 1/2 + 1/4!  (Quick background note:  We have created our own fraction kits, a la Marilyn Burns and Math Solutions, and have played both the Cover-up and Uncover games, where equivalent fraction exchanges in the latter game help children quickly learn than 1/2 is the same as 2/4 or 1/4 is the same as 2/8, etc.)  Most of the students quickly saw that 1/2 + 1/4 was the same as 3/4 since 1/2 is equivalent to 2/4 and 2/4 + 1/4 is 3/4.  They were little unsure about 3/4 and 6/8, though.  That surprised me at first but as I thought about it I realized the game, as we play it, doesn't reveal many equivalent fractions where at least one numerator is not 1.  During our discussion we had placed the 8/8 fraction circle manipulatives on the carpet, to see why 6/8s might be a solution, so as we thought about whether 3/4 = 6/8 one student jumped across the carpet with great enthusiasm and said, "Hey!  Look! When I put 3 one-fourth pieces on top of the 6 one-eighth pieces they match exactly so they must be equivalent!"
The student who made this connection is not often totally engaged in the conversation but today, through our structure, it appears he felt more engaged, included and excited about contributing...adding deep percussion to the symphony!

Our final step in the Problem of the Day structure is Reflection time.  I have been inspired by the works of Marily Burns and Magdalene Lampert on journaling in math class and one of my 3rd grade colleagues, April Louthain.  Lately, I have been wondering if the reflections we do in our class are contributing enough towards our learning.  They do give me a small glimpse into student understanding but they are not usually written in enough detail to truly understand what the student is thinking.  (I find our 1-on-1 conversations provide the most insight into their thinking.)  My education partner, Mark Pettyjohn, and I have spent many productive hours thinking about how to create a structure for the most beneficial reflections.  In a recent conversation we decided that we should design the student reflection along the lines of our own general reflection questions so we created, "What did this problem make you think about in math today?"  I eagerly tried the question earlier this week and found some of the student responses were still not specific enough, as when they explain their thinking verbally.  So, for this lesson I added "How or why?" as a follow-up question.  Before I gave the question to the students today we discussed the value of reflection.  Many students said it was important for their helped them to discuss what they learned and questions they still had about the lesson.    We then contrasted two earlier version of student responses and I asked them students to pair-up and decide which response provided a clear understanding of student thinking:

Reflection 1:  This problem made me think about equal pieces and fractions because we split up oranges.  It also made me think about circles and stars [math game] because...[didn't have time to finish.] 

Reflection 2:  This problem made me think about equality.

The discussion that ensued was enlightening for us all.  Part of the class thought #2 was more specific because the student used a precise mathematical term, "equality."  Others felt response #1 was more specific because the student said a reason for her understanding.  We decided that both reflections had qualities we could incorporate into our own written reflection in the future but including the "because" helped us pinpoint why we felt we had learned or how we had learned it.  When it came time to reflect today I asked them to write for 5 minutes.  They eagerly put pen to paper and they are very eager for me to read their reflections.  I am too!

One final note on Reflections, we built upon one reflection idea from our Calkins' reading and writing lessons, "Think Jots."  I reminded them how they use these jots when they are reading to capture their thoughts in the moment.  This is usually done on post-it notes and placed in their books but we decided we could simply write the notes on our math work papers.  We talked about the importance of writing them just as we are thinking our thoughts so we don't forget our thoughts.  One student commented that on that very day he had brought his notebook to our discussion and taken some notes!  He decided he could use those notes in his daily reflection.  And the symphony conductor smiled!

So, after reading my inaugural blog, why do you think today was a successful day, a mathematical symphony?  What ideas do you have to help us improve our Problem of the Day structure and our intentional talk?

My own reflection is that the success was due to:
> Intentionality in our work and our talk;
> A problem that met our intellectual need and had multiple entry points;
> Connection to prior understanding about equal sharing and equivalent fractions;
> Use of manipulatives and drawings to visualize the action in the problem;
> Modeling and discussing the role of reflections and examples of student reflections;
> Connecting to the work we do in reading and writing;
> Valuable connections I have made through Twitter where colleagues around the world share powerful student-centered, rich ideas.  (Thanks @m_pettyjohn (Mark,) @Simon_Gregg, @TracyZager, @MathMinds (Kristin Gray,) and @mburnsmath, (Marilyn Burns!))
> Taking action to implement the ideas I have learned through colleagues and the user-friendly, inspiring books I have read of late;
> MOST IMPORTANTLY:  The inspiring, enthusiastic, risk-taking 4th grade mathematicians who work hard each and every day!

I eagerly await your thoughts and reflections!  Thank to all of you who have encouraged me to blog!  It has been a enriching day of reflection for me, just as you promised it would be!


  1. First of all - - - you blog is begun! And begun with an explosion of brilliant things! Thank you so much for sharing all this!

    I agree with your list. I'm pretty sure that there's a classroom culture that underpins all of this too. Which is a lot down to you - showing that you value the thoughts and work of your students, showing in all sorts of little ways that you're interested in the maths itself, warmth and positivity. When a student says something like, "I love it when we talk about a math problem this way because it helps me really understand math and answers the questions I have" you know there's a good vibe in that classroom!

    As you say, having the prior understanding refreshed and extended just the week before, with manipulatives and with games meant they were primed
    to be set off on this problem on their own. It was simple enough, and they had tools enough, that most of the students could be expected to find something. And then, I love the bansho-board - what a visible representation of all their thinking, of a communal effort to understand!

    I love your Problem of the Day approach -Math by Myself, Plus Power, Knowledge Multiplier and Reflection. I'm much less regular in how my lessons are structured, and I'm sure this great combination gives a lot of security to the students, from which they can then take risks! I want to see how my students would handle the orange question now! I was thinking about fractions in the last week of term - I might need to swap it round and do it this week!

    Nina - I hope this is the first of many many posts from you. You mustn't feel that you have to write this much every time - there are so many things to do in evenings and weekends! - but then again, it was a delight reading every sentence!

    1. Totally agree, Si. A lovely lesson and idea. Maybe we could use or adapt the structure whilst exploring new ideas chez nous? Y6 did a similar activity last year and it led to a 'penny dropping moment' to do with division. Well done Nina - your students are very lucky to have you!

    2. Thank you, Simon and Isobel! I am honored by your feedback. It is so valuable!

      I am grateful to you, Simon, Mark Pettyjohn and Kristin Gray for encouraging me to blog. Mark and I were debriefing the lesson Friday evening and he said, in his kind and supportive voice, "You need to blog about this lesson and your reflection and it really should be done this weekend!" Mark is the best colleague anyone could hope to have and his advice is always spot-on so...a blog was born! Also, I get so much value from reading your blog and others, like Tracy Z and Kristin, maybe if I share my classroom it might be of value to you all and others. So, thank YOU again, Simon!

      Mark Pettyjohn, is the one who originally designed this Problem of the Day structure. We try to meet every Friday night to reflect on the week, (something we've nicknamed "Friday Night Lights") and we were wondering last year how to make our math classes a richer learning environment. Mark is a big believer in having structures in place so that the content can take the main stage. I simply adopted his successful structure and the children thrive in it. Each part of the structure, too, is valued by the children. With our work on intentional talk we need to zoom in on Plus Power (pair share) because I am concerned there is more "I did this..." versus "Interesting, why did you do this?" Sounds like another modeling conversation to me!

      Another great aspect of the Problem of the Day (POTD) is that it gives you and your students opportunities to work individually, in small group and in whole group, so it appeals to all students. It gives me time to monitor each child's thinking about the problem, during Math by Myself, and to decide who could share to scaffold our understanding. It also gives me time to talk to each student 1-on-1 a few times each week. I have an co-teacher, intervention specialist, Deb Nogrady, who works with us part of each math class period and the POTD structure gives her time to work 1-on-1 with students as well as another teacher, and she is an amazing teacher, to join our whole group conversation. It is a marvelous experience for us all!

      Yes, this was a rather long blog! Everything was flooding my mind so I needed to write it down. I appreciate the encouraging words, Simon, about the time factor. I think I just needed to start and now that I did I can use the blog frequently for shorter posts and an occasional more in-depth post.

      Thanks again! I am honored! N

  2. Nina, what a wonderful lesson and reflection on the whole journey! I agree with Simon, I love the structure for student thinking to allow students to think alone and engage in the problem before moving into collaborative work. I try to make that a part of my lessons too!
    I had the same question Tracy did on Twitter about the oranges and I will be interested to see how they think around rectangles. It may be neat to do a comparison between the two afterwards. Will circles always be easy? is a question that pops in my head because if they were not oranges, being predivided, I wonder if it would have been more challenging to think about divisions.
    I look forward to reading so much more from you!

    Here was my lesson on fractions as division with a journal reflection that may be cool for your students to think about:

    1. Thanks, Kristin! I love the idea of comparing the rectangles and circles! I will give it a try and post the results.

      Thanks for sharing your lesson! I will check it out this morning.

      A final thanks, Kristin, for encouraging me to blog! You gotta love the world of Twitter math ed colleagues.

    2. Hi Kristin! Thanks again for sending me the link to your blog,!

      We, too, need to uncover fractions as division and your lesson gave me great ideas on how to extend my lesson. Thanks!

  3. Nina! You're finally blogging! The world is finally being exposed to the greatness that happens in your classroom! First and foremost, the community that you have built in your classroom speaks volumes to the successes your students have on a daily basis. Those 4th graders are comfortable and secure which leads to great risk-taking in room 118. You and Mark are masters at building this community and focusing in on whole group and individual reflections to help move learning forward. I have to agree with all of your own reflection points about why this task was such a success. In particular, I think the steps you took to increase success rates and impact learning more are essential: scaffolding fraction lessons and understanding, working on the intentional math talk, seeking out new ideas,
    constantly incorporating the SMPs, and focusing in on the importance of refection...why it's important and how to do it well. One big reason for all the success that can't be overlooked is the dedication of you as a teacher and your drive to continually grow and learn, for your benefit as well as the benefit of your students :) Kudos to you, my friend!

  4. Nina, your reflections about what made this lesson a success are spot on. However, there is one glaring omission: your relentless drive to improve your practice. That combined with your bravery to put yourself our here to the wide world and solicit further improvements is what makes you the teacher you are.

    Many of the people who know you are well aware of your ability as a teacher, but not everyone has had the opportunity to work with you and see the process that leads to your students' success. You drew a map here that is paved with hard work, humility, and an unyielding desire to help every child that crosses your path become a young mathematician. I look forward to many more reflections from room 118 both for your benefit and for ours.

  5. I so very much appreciate the details in your blog. They provided a wonderfully thorough description of what went on during the class. I often feel that the details of planning lessons are essential for their success, and it seems that you had a structure that allowed you the freedom to listen to the students, and to encourage students to listen to one another.

    I’m also curious about any differences that between using the context of oranges vs the context of candy bars.

    I look forward to reading future blogs.

    Also, I revisited the video clips on the Math Reasoning Inventory site, specifically the one that asks students to compare 6/8 and 3/4 in the context of distance. (Carlos lives of a mile from school.
    Terrell lives of a mile from school. Which of these is correct?
    • Both boys live the same distance from school.
    • One boy lives farther from school.)
    Take a look:
    I got this idea from a book that I’ve found to be really helpful: Beyond Pizzas and Pies by Julie McNamara and Meghan M. Shaughnessy. Students can sometimes convert from one to the other and not understand that they represent the same amount of the same whole.

    Marilyn Burns

    1. Thanks, Marilyn! We have done more work this week with both circles and rectangles which I will include in my blog later this week. It seems the students made the transition fairly easily but I need to reflect upon it and discuss it with them too.

      I appreciate the link to the Math Reasoning Inventory site. I just watched all 3 videos and am now inspired to ask the same question of my students. I am wondering also about the linear aspect of this fraction question as opposed to the area model of fractions. I'll keep you posted.

      Ah yes! Am very familiar and found great value with BPP by Julie and Meghan. I am eager to spend time with the new book too, Beyond Invert and Multiply.

      I think the children and I could spend each and every hour of the day studying fractions! A never ending supply of math goodness!