|Figure 1: Solutions portrayed akin to Japanese bansho|
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.|
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, followinglearning.blogspot.com) 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!"
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 learning...it 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!