A First Grade Teacher Enters the Math World

Sunday, August 16, 2015 / 18 comments

  My name is Jamie Duncan and I am a first grade teacher in southern California. 



 I have been teaching for about 14 years, all of which have been spent in kindergarten through second grade.  The last 8 years have been in first grade.  I’ve been reading some tweets about us elementary folk being left out of the math loop, and it is true for many, so I thought I would weigh in and share my journey.
As most primary teachers, I have spent most of my efforts on language arts.  I think many would agree that the importance of literacy math in the early years of school.  It makes sense, right?  Kids need to be able to read to be able to do any other subject area?  It made sense to me at the time so that is why I put all my effort into being the best reading and writing teacher that I could be.  This worked out well for me as I didn’t have a “key to the country club.”  That is how Dan Meyer described students or people who “get math.”  I was locked out of the country club.  Nobody gave me a point of access.  Don’t get me wrong, I did my best to teach math as well.  I did what they taught me in school: I do, we do, you do and used manipulatives (all the good teachers used those) that I chose for my students because I thought they made sense or that’s what the curriculum company told me I should use.  Most kids got the answer this way, right?  They must understand it, right? Then common core came along, and along with it came performance tasks.  My kids could get the multiple choice items correct and some of the constructed response, but they bombed the performance task portion of the assessments.  What the heck was I going to do?  Oh don’t worry…  I can reteach it!  While I’m teaching new standards as well, no problem…  I don’t have to spell that out for you do I?  Please say no.
Sometime after Christmas break during a staff meeting our principal introduces Ryan Dent to the staff.  He is saying all kinds of crazy stuff like I do, we do, you do is backwards!  Seriously?  How are my little first graders supposed to come in and teach each other math they haven’t even learned yet?  He wants teachers to talk as little as possible and the kids to do nothing but talk?!  Classroom management nightmare, right?  This guy is nuts… but he is really passionate… Then something weird happens, I go to a training at the county office and someone else (who I know is not crazy)   says the same thing.  I guess I better learn a little bit more about it.
Later in the spring I attend my first Standards of Mathematical Practice training offered by Ryan and Kristian Quiocho at my district office.  I don’t know how else to explain the training other than it was like a giant epiphany.  A huge Aha!  Now it all makes sense.  I see it now.  It will take getting used to, but I get it.  
After the training I start trying out some of what I learned.  Success after success.  I guess these guys are on to something.  Later in the year they announce that our district is going to write our own math modules, but they want teachers from each grade level to come together and write tasks.  I figure, this is new for me, but I know I will learn a lot so I do it with another first grade teacher and we work ALL SUMMER, and by all summer I mean from the day school gets out until we went back.  We both felt like we had gone to college for the summer.
When school began I decided there was no better way than to dive in.  I gave students tasks, I watched them struggle (NOT RESCUING THEM WAS EXCRUCIATING), I used samples of their own work, students explained and critiqued the work of others, they made connections, they talked to each other about math, they wrote about math in their math journals.  I decided to use the same assessment I had used the year before to compare data.  This is what happened:


(3 is high, 1 is low)
They must have gotten lucky, but then this happened...





Seriously?  I went to college.  I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and took more classes after that and my kids are better teachers than I am???  My students learn better when I hardly say anything at all???  How are my kids able to figure out how to do this math without me telling them how to do it?  Then it hit me.  It was that thing Ryan and Kristian shared at our SMP training only maybe I wasn’t quite ready to fully understand it yet…  It was problem solving.  My kids can problem solve.  What is problem solving?  Simply put, problem solving is what you do when you don’t know what to do.
What was I doing while the kids are running the show?  I give them a task, I listen for common misconceptions, I choose work samples to fuel discussions, 




and I do my best to ask probing questions that focus on conceptual understanding.  (It’s easier to funnel them into the answer.)  As Phil Daro would say, “What is the math they need to learn here?”  I worked with my co-module writer to train other first grade teachers in our district on using the modules.  It was exciting to see other teachers open up and try teaching math this way.  It was even more exciting to read about their success in emails.
Then, I started to get more and more into math.  I watched this talk by Dan Meyer:  http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover?language=en  Hello integrating multi-media, real world tasks, 3 acts!  I loved it and was totally inspired to try some myself.  Ryan introduced me to Graham Fletcher’s tasks for elementary. http://gfletchy.com/3-act-lessons/  Thank you very much!

After all of this I begged my district to go to NCTM’s national conference in Boston.  For some reason, they said yes.  My district sent 3 of us to represent our district.  I was representing K-2, Ryan was 3-8, and Chris was 9-12.  (Both Ryan and Chris’s mathematical intelligence intimidates me, but I have made peace with that and I choose to look at it this way.  I am the lucky one, because I get to grow the most.)   I couldn’t believe it!  I was so shocked… and thankful…  and humbled…  and a little scared…  Teachers don’t often (next to never) get to go to conferences out of state!  I truly wanted to learn as much as I could and then use what I learned to help better any teacher willing to listen.  While I was there I was given the opportunity to learn from the very best.  I went to sessions by Phil Daro , Jason Zimba, William McCallum, Dan Meyer (I took a pic with him!  There was a line!  I’m not kidding.  Math nerds unite at NCTM), 
Marilyn Burns, Sherry Parrish, Ruth Parker, Karen Karpe, and Maria Blanton.  Not only were the presenters amazing to learn from, but I got to meet other professionals like Steve Wyborney who is just amazing.  All in all, it was phenomenal.  I wish I could share every last detail of the training with people, but it’s exactly how Dan Meyer describes math class in the beginning of Math Class Needs a Makeover.  (see video link above)  Our math team (Ryan, Chris and myself) took back the message that we had received at NCTM and reported to the district and used that learning to plan future professional development for our teachers.  I am soooooo looking forward to these!
I couldn’t be more pleased with the growth my students made last year.  They are my math superheros.  They taught me so much!  This year my group of students is very different.  My room is now the inclusive classroom in first grade and it’s more homogeneous, at least at the moment.  My math goal as of right now is to focus on meeting these kids where they are right now.  At NCTM Jason Zimba said, “Don’t let the standards be handcuffs for the children placed in front of you.”  So I’m not.  I’m also setting a goal to really work on my questioning technique with a strong emphasis on conceptual understanding.
As far as Literacy mathematics, I can’t say I agree anymore.  Yes, students need to be able to read to do just about everything else, but they also have to use reasoning skills.  They need to be able to choose tools to solve problems in and outside of a mathematical context.    They need to be able to analyze and critique the reasoning of others to help make decisions for themselves.  In the real world, people are not going to spoon feed them and give them everything they need.  They are going to have to problem solve.  Why not start cultivating this when kids are little?

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18 comments:

  1. What a great first post Jamie and so glad you're contributing to our elementary world Looking forward to you sharing more awesomeness through your site.

    All the best my friend and keep 'em coming!

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    1. Thank you so much, Graham! I have been really fortunate to have great leadership. Thank you for all of your contributions! Very inspirational!

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  2. Jamie, this is a fantastic post! I'm a high school math teacher with a PhD, and I went through a very similar process to you. I DID have the keys to the country club, but I think it made it even harder to recognize that it doesn't help students to make it easier for them at the beginning. The struggle for sense-making teaches them how to make sense of new problems. I'm so excited to hear that you are helping little problem-solvers blossom. Those of us who teach high school can't WAIT to see the fruits of your labor. I fully expect that if more primary teachers are as persistent and passionate about math instruction as you are becoming, the effects will "trickle up" and astound us.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Dawn! I am envious of those keys! My husband has them too. :) I hear what you are saying though. I really do hope more and more primary teachers take on this challenge. I can't even fathom all that the students would be capable of by the time they got to high school or college!

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  3. Dunk, you probably wanted to tell me about this on the phone, huh? I love this, and I know we need math experts out there, so I'm so excited you have your own blog! I'm sure I (and teachers I work with) can learn so much from you! Great post, love to share in your journey!
    Also, love the domain name! :-)

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    1. Your life is more important! Not a big deal at all. I didn't even plan on mentioning it. Thank you for your comment. I need you to help me with writing!

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  4. Thanks for sharing. Great post! I can't wait to read more. I enjoyed and appreciated your story. I would love to see you share your story with more elementary teachers so that they can join this online community of teachers working endlessly to provide their students with better learning opportunities.
    As Graham said, keep 'em coming!

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    1. Thank you so much! I would love to work with teachers more in the online community! I am giving a session at CMC-SOUTH with Ryan in November. :) Nervous and looking forward to that!

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  5. Glad to see you in this community, Jamie. There is a massive need for reflective blog posts from elementary math educators like yourself. Keep 'em coming.

    Dan

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    1. Wow! Thank you so much for reading my post. It must have been odd to see a pic of yourself! Haha. Thank you for your comment. I'll keep working on it. I'll be at CMC-SOUTH. I'm giving a k-2 discourse session with Ryan, maybe I will see you there. :)

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  6. Thanks for this great post, Jamie. I look forward to reading more from you. This is really wonderful for teachers who are afraid to rethink their math instructional model. I wonder how the way you teach math now compares to the way you teach reading. Are there similarities, or do you find that they are two domains that have fundamentally different pedagogical approaches?

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  7. Thank you, Jason! Although there are some practices better suited for each subject area much of what I do now in math has transferred into the literacy arena. There are a lot of close reading strategies that tie in to this. Making connections, providing evidence, applying it to their own lives, etc. The math practice standards are also very well aligned with the ELD standards. I know math is going to tie in well with the new NGSS standards as well. I'm looking forward to learning more about that!

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  8. Here’s what I LOVE about this post. . .
    You have invited your students to explore and share with each other. You have shown great interest in their work (posting it, acknowledging it, listening to them) and they have come to realize the importance of their own thinking, to respect their own problem solving, and to listen to each other. They have become a motivated learning community.
    And that’s what YOU have done for yourself. You decided to explore best practice in mathematics teaching. You found the others to communicate with, and you found the power and importance of your own thinking.
    Your journey is what really matters here. Your students are the benefactors, and I trust that many educators will be touched by your progress and willingness to share it.

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    1. Thank you so much, Arjan! You and Fletchy actually got me thinking about this recently. There was something posted about math in elementary schools. I hope other elementary teachers find this post, especially primary teachers. I hope it just gives someone the courage to just give it a shot.

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  9. Hello :) I LOVVVVE teaching math at the younger stages. I am trying to understand more about math through the higher maths. What I am curious about is if there is a need to help students not imprint incorrect knowledge during the lessons. Is this solved because they continue to explore? If you hear them saying things that aren't true, do you listen to make sure they come to the right conclusion? I don't want to have all inquiry based math, and so this really appears to be a nice balance! I can't wait to learn more as I am reading your blog. Right now, I am in a "Teaching Mathematics" course at a Grad level, and so this is the perfect time in my sequence to rabbit trail from the "musts" of my Uni reading and enjoy the great conversations about how math is best learned. Some day I hope to come to some of the Math Conferences! Thanks!

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    1. Hi! Yes, you're right, we don't want kids to do things incorrectly, but how we handle that is extremely important. After launching a task and kids begin to work, teachers should be walking around or standing somewhere in the room where they can listen. We listen for common misconceptions. Those misconceptions are some of the best teaching tools. Teachers can choose one of those representations and ask kids what they notice, what's the same/different from their own work? After it comes out that it's incorrect through student discourse the class would analyze the thinking and try to understand why it's wrong and what they can do to fix it. Of course there are other instances that students are not doing something correctly. I try to think to myself, What message will it send the student if I swoop in and show them how to do it? Would it be better if I ask them (as they are creating their representation) to explain their thinking? Or if they are stuck ask them to tell me what they know about the problem so far? What are you trying to figure out? Then, ask them what tools they think might help them figure that out? Something that takes getting used to from teachers is that your lesson may not be wrapped up with a pretty bow before it's time to go to recess. Working through concepts and misconceptions takes time. I wrote about the balance of inquiry here. http://www.elementarymathaddict.com/2016/03/good-vs-evil-pedagogy-in-classroom.html Let me know what you think! I would love to hear it! Thanks for reading!

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