Posted in Math

Does Your Math Community Need a Jumpstart? Try this…

It’s the middle of the school year and things can be tough in a math classroom; especially now! Do you feel like you are struggling to get a math community going in your class? Do you have students who sit back and let others do all the work solving problems in math? Do you struggle to get kids to talk to each other about math? Do you have kids who give up quickly? If you answered “YES” to any or all of these questions….read on!

Now, think about all of those fabulous movies that have featured some pretty tough problem solving like Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, or The Imitation Game (just to name a few). What do they have in common? They all document real historical events in which people worked collaboratively to solve problems. In all of these movies as well as in real life mathematicians are standing up solving problems around chalk boards, white boards, as well as writing on glass.

Hidden Figures

Hmmm….you’re probably asking yourself…”what does this have to do with building (or rebuilding) my math community”?

Research Reveals Easy Solutions

This past summer while reading the book by Tracy J. Zager, Becoming the Mathematics Teacher You Wish You Had, I ran across some research that really made the wheels in my brain start turning (pgs. 321-324). Research done by Peter Liljedahl found that if we want to build collaborative math communities we have to create the right environment to foster “thinking classrooms”. Liljedahl found that if students are standing and working on vertical non-permanent surfaces they were:

  • more eager to start problem solving,
  • involved more discussion and collaboration,
  • had greater participation from a higher number of students,
  • had greater persistence in problem solving.

While reading this it occurred to me that simply having students stand to solve problems at white boards might just be a game changer. I thought about all the times I had to work with people to solve tough problems and I realized that often we scribbled thoughts and ideas on my whiteboard to work out the problem AND more often then not we ended up standing…even if we started out sitting.

Setting it up

The keys to set up this collaborative structure:

  • have students stand to solve a problem.
  • each group of students needs a non-permanent surface to write on (white board, chalk board, or glass).
  • each non-permanent surface should be mounted vertically.
  • each area will need a basket of markers (so that each student can have a marker in their hand and contribute to the ideas).

Experimenting with the Idea

The first time I tried this was earlier in the year with each of my PK-5 grade level teams in a CFIP meeting (Classroom Focused Improvement Process). We were working on writing a problem based lesson to incorporate a rich problem that I pre-selected for their upcoming unit. The first thing I did was split the team into 2 smaller groups and post the problem on a vertical surface. The teachers in each group had to work together to first solve the problem. The collaboration that ensued was nothing short of REMARKABLE! The administrators in the room even remarked at how much more lively the conversation was and how much more productive the time was than normal (normally we sit around a table to do this work). When they had finished I asked the teachers what they noticed about how I set up the problem solving and how it impacted their work. The teachers were also struck at how different it felt to solve problems standing up. I then challenged my teachers to try it out in their own classroom.

The Idea Takes on a Life of It’s Own

Fifth grade teachers solving a tough problem together!
First Grade teachers tackle a Place Value Problem together!

The very next day one of my 5th grade teachers tried it out in his classroom by assigning each group in his room either a part of a white board or some sticky chart paper on his walls and having his students stand to solve their problem. Right away he came to tell me how much MORE ENGAGED his students were and how positive the lesson was.

So…that weekend he went to Home Depot and purchased some white smooth bathroom paneling (which is cheap and they will cut for you for free) and cut it into large rectangles which we used velcro to attach to his walls so that every group in his room had a space to work. Then, the idea started catching on throughout our building, Word of mouth is amazing!!! Within a week a teacher on another grade level had bought boards and started having not only her class solve problems on them but also write collaboratively during their reading and writing time. Several weeks later our principal jokingly said to me, “we’re not going to have to worry about budging for more furniture next year since all the kids are standing up to work!”

Just Try It!

This phenomenon has been going on in our building for several months now. Not everyone has bought into these ideas but many have (and those that have will tell you how much of a difference it makes). Now when I model lessons I make it a point to have students stand and solve on vertical surfaces (even if it’s just chart paper). I used this structure to teach a 3 act lesson in a third grade classroom on Friday and again the teacher remarked at how EVERYONE was engaged and was astonished that no one gave up! I’d say that is a WIN!

Questions and Considerations

If you have read this far you might be interested in trying out this structure in your classroom. Since I have been sharing this idea, of solving problems standing while working on vertical non-permanent surfaces, I have been asked these questions many times. These are things you might be asking yourself:

  • “If they are working on the walls don’t kids look at the work of other groups?” YES and thank goodness they do! What a great way to cross pollinate ideas! If they are struggling and they “steal” an idea from another group then good I’m glad they did because they got something to help them continue to persevere!
  • “I’ve heard it is best to let kids choose where they want to work to get maximum engagement – is this really better?” In my experience when you let kids choose where they want to work they chose the floor. Then I often see 1 or 2 kids in the group working and the others are laying on the floor completely disengaged from the work. Standing doesn’t allow them to disengage.
  • “Won’t they get tired of standing?” Just like anything else balance is key! I’m certainly not saying that kids should stand up all day long but…if you want them to work cooperatively to solve a problem or create something you should consider this for that part of the lesson or day.
  • “What if my students need to use manipulatives to solve the problem? How does that work if they are standing?” This is a great question! I just make sure that each standing group has a table near them that they can use their manipulatives on adjacent to their writing surface on the wall.
  • “I don’t have the money to purchase dry erasable material or have the space to mount them can I still do this?” YES! While “non-permanent” surfaces help people feel like it is ok to make mistakes I have found that giving them chart paper works almost as well also. I just make sure they know they can have more than one sheet if they them.

I hope this post has inspired you to give this a try. Feel free to comment or ask questions!