How to Plan For Purposeful Conversations In Math

Talk is not cheap.

It may be if it is not purposeful, thoughtful, useful. But it can be powerful, meaningful, and a link to making sense of things… even math.

In Regie Routman’s compelling tome, Literacy Essentials, she wades into Listening, Speaking , and Questioning as a source to “elevate teaching and learning” (149). After seeing how important it is these past few years while teaching high school math to have conversation as part of the instructional equation, I know that I am going to have to do a lot explicit modeling and teaching this next year to help 6th graders have a healthy, usable framework for how to have math discussions.

That will be a lot of work and a lot of fun! I think it will set them up to continue to grow as thinkers and problem solvers. They will have the tools to handle talking about tuned mass dampers and the world’s tallest buildings, about icosahedrons and Fuller projections, and how to solve ratio problems.

On pages 153-154, Routman pegs how to promote and have “significant conversations.”

* Students today need “demonstrations and practice on how and why meaningful conversation is an artful necessity for optimal living and learning” (153).

* This is a “most important skill” (154).

* Our role? “Simulate, clarify and moderate the conversations so students do most of the talking” (154).

* These conversations should “promote debate, curiosity… thoughtful questioning… valuing multiple perspectives” (154).

* Regie again says on 154, “…if we want students to invest in complex thinking and sharing of ideas, they must believe their voices matter.”

Making this happen requires deliberate and intentional planning. Mrs. Routman gives several tools and steps in her “Take Action” section. I want to highlight one of the tools that speaks the loudest to me on this read. She says to “ensure your students and you have the tools to make productive discussions possible” (156) and then cites Talk Moves to Support Classroom Discussion from a book by Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz. These “moves” are discussion stems for various tasks within thoughtful and purposeful discussion. For example, this stem – “so you’re saying…” – can be used for helping frame and paraphrase what another student has said.

Sure, it seems simple. But for conversations to be civil and thoughtful, these types of discussion prompts have to be rehearsed in context. That may be a little forced at first. Awkward. Maybe even a little uncomfortable. The kids will need to see me model it. They will need prompts in their hands so they can practice. They will most likely need to listen in on each other to offer feedback. It may be emotional.

If they have to disagree or correct some math missteps, it almost certainly will be. Harry O’Malley, in a recent article, suggests that I could even plan for the emotions that I want them to have. What if I introduce, as he suggests, music in the background during a practice conversation – music that was specifically chosen to evoke a more predictable emotion?

Whatever my methods, I once again come away from Mrs. Routman’s excellent book about literacy chock-full of ideas about how to apply some of those core learnings in my 6th-grade math classroom. That’s not only something worth thinking about, it’s something worth talking about.

Embedding Professional Learning

Our journey to excellence in teaching begins with a commitment to professional learning.

-Regie Routman

I am lucky enough to work in a school that believes in this so much that they allocate the money to have me on staff working with teachers in their classrooms every single day. Yes, that’s right. Every. Single. Day. Every Teacher. This beautiful hidden gem of a school only has one teacher per grade level K-4 so I get to be in their classrooms, learning side by side with the teacher and the students in every grade level every single day. My school lives what Regie calls professional learning over professional development and that is not easy to do. Imagine the teachers’ thoughts and feelings in this tiny school when they hired yet another support staff member (cue eye roll) instead of allocating the money towards their budgets or a teacher’s assistant. However, after one year, I think we have all realized now the power of having this kind of consistent learning that is specifically “connected to classroom practice and geared toward fostering collegial collaboration” (Routman, 2018).

This year we all focused on writing with an emphasis on giving kids time to write every single day with purpose and an audience in mind. We worked towards creating a common language across the grade levels along with building writing skills and expectations from grade to grade. This is exactly the kind of collegial collaboration that is talked about in Literacy Essentials as being the kind of long-term growth and sustainability that schools strive for. Teachers are crazy busy and barely have time to go to the bathroom let alone talk to a colleague about best practices. Cue me. Showing up for them and with them every single day. I could tell the first-grade teacher what was happening in kindergarten and second grade. I could make her feel like she was a part of a bigger picture when teachers sometimes feel like they are on an island. I was able to not only ask, “How is it going?” but actually see how it was going. Turns out it was going well, really well.

As educators, we could reflect every single day on what we saw and what we could do next. I brought resources they didn’t have time to track down, I found research supporting their thoughts and beliefs and I cheered them on as they went out of their comfort zones to try new things. We only met as a group when the topic affected the whole group. I didn’t have to call meetings where people felt disrespected for using their precious time for things that don’t pertain to them. Individual issues, questions, and concerns were talked about and worked through each day during their classroom practice. I was able to glean and share our set of shared beliefs around writing and help the busy teachers keep a focus on those beliefs. We made a difference in our community of writers, in their enthusiasm for sharing their words with the world, their ability to grow as writers and it reflected (thank goodness) in their test scores. Teachers are now more confident when they talk to writers and have the common language to help support them.

I know our situation is an enigma, I know that you are probably not in this same situation and can think of a thousand reasons why this wouldn’t work for you, I know how lucky we are. I ask you though to instead focus on what can be done. If you are a coach and can’t physically be in each teacher’s classroom every day, what can you do to help if just in small ways? How can you facilitate communication between the teachers and help build collaboration? If you are a classroom teacher could you use your fellow colleagues as coaches when one person can’t do it all, or share in the responsibility for your learning and reflect on your practice even if someone isn’t there to push you? These are all thoughts Mrs. Routman shares with us in Literacy Essentials.

Professional learning over professional development works. When teachers are the “Lead Learners” in the classroom not only by words but by action, they inspire their student learners each and every day. I have lived it, seen the power of it, and can’t wait to see what next year brings.

Re-envisioning Roles

It’s easy to get caught up in the quick fix of doing the task, presenting the question that gives one quick response, and providing the immediate answer when a student approaches us. After all, we are under strict time constraints, the tests are always looming, and there’s those dang mandated curriculums to cover.  Come to think of it, that’s not even factoring in the students sitting in front of us, all seeming to need our attention at the same moment. So yeah, I get it, and in the short run, doing the task, asking for one correct response, just giving the answer… all seem feasible and even manageable. However…in the long run, it’s the students who lose out.  We do the exact opposite of what we truly intend, and thus create students who play the “School game.” Students who want to know exactly what they need to do for “said” grade. Kids who are constantly looking for a reward, kids who are trained to be compliant rather than curious. Kids who seemingly give up the moment the going gets a little tough.

In my experience teaching lower elementary, especially when I was first starting out and didn’t know any better, I was guilty of exactly what Regie talks about in the section on Equity-  Unintentionally disadvantaging and disabling my students by doing all the work for them, rather then guiding them towards self sufficiency and self regulation. She says it best, “…we disadvantage and disable kids by thwarting and delaying the development of competencies that lead to growing self-confidence and self-reliance.  Students develop self-regulation and self-sufficiency only when we teach for it and expect it” (p.347). Regie goes on to say that one of the best ways to develop this characteristic of self-determining, self-evaluating learners is through student-directed, small-group work. How does one go about creating this dynamic? It starts on day one.  Coming together as a community of learners. Co-creating the norms and expectations, giving students a voice…when these things are in place, the rest also falls into place.

Many years ago, the 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser started me on a better path toward creating self-directed, self-evaluating learners. Their book, The Daily 5 was instrumental in helping me renew my teaching practice. It was through them that I first learned about the “Gradual release of responsibility method”.  Reading similar sentiments about how to engage and empower students through Regie’s lens in Literacy Essentials affirms the value of honoring students through voice and choice.  It’s about establishing ground rules through a shared creation of norms with your students. Co-creating anchor charts and classroom expectations, modeling and practicing the right way, wrong way, and the right way yet again. Asking more thought-provoking questions, and putting the thinking where it needs to be- On The Student. Talking less and listening more.

Even kindergarteners are capable of having ownership of the learning and learning environment when we co-create the norms and expectations. I was astounded with how capable they actually were!  Sure, they might not always have the stamina or resilience to make good choices 100% of the time, but most of the time they were much more engaged and self-reliant through this process than when I was the one controlling everything about the learning environment. It’s the same with my first graders. And if we are brutally honest, even adults aren’t on task and making good choices 100% of the time; it’s just part of human nature. Once you make the deliberate move to shift your thinking and teaching toward practices that engage and empower your students, you won’t ever go back.  

A huge part of this shift in our thinking about how we teach involves a focus on the part of talk. When we, as the teacher, are doing most of the talking (lecturing, question asking, answer providing), then we are also consequently doing most of the work.  On p. 338, Regie talks about finding the balance and about embracing conversations in the classroom. Conversations where all voices are heard and valued and there is no threat of a hidden agenda.  Conversations that ignite and drive curiosity. Conversations that involve the teacher as an integral part of the learning, not just dispensing the learning. I love this quote from Regie, “Balancing the power in the room leads to a better power balance outside the room” (p.338).  To me this means, not just balancing the power outside the classroom, but of a balance reaching far further than school walls.

Much to the end that Regie encapsulates with the following quote, “Empowered students come to believe they have agency in their lives, that they have the ability to implement positive changes for themselves and others” (p. 338). This. Isn’t this what we hope for all students?

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.

It’s All About Relationships

“Culture exists whether we are intentional about creating it or not, but it’s a positive culture that is essential to making the necessary changes within our school.” -Jay Billy  #TLAP

“People ask me all the time-’What’s the next big thing coming in education? This is what I tell them.  Relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships-those never go out of style!”  -Adam Welcome #KidsDeserveIt

“The best teachers know that it comes down to this one thing- relationships.” -Michele Hill

Recently on social media, I’ve noticed some buzz about “Relationships” in education. Even if you aren’t on social media, you’d have to live under a rock to not understand that relationships are the bedrock of any organization.  Schools included. Unfortunately, building and maintaining positive relationships is a lot easier said than done. Changes in staff, administration, and transient students make sustaining positive relationships a daunting challenge.  I know this from personal experience. Throughout my 21 years of teaching, I have seen both positive and negative shifts in the culture based on healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in the building. And it DOES affect the culture of the school. Regie states, “Trusting relationships are necessary for students and teachers to engage in serious learning and for all learners in a school to flourish.” (9)  This…   This is truth.

But rather than just “talk” about the importance of relationships, Regie offers scaffolding to create healthy and positive relationships.  She says, “When we feel personally and professionally valued, we are apt to be happier, more productive, and more likely to take risks as teachers and learners.” (10)  Do teachers actually perform better when they feel valued by their administration? My response… Absolutely-100%. It honestly makes all the difference. There isn’t a doubt in my mind.  Regie then goes on in her Take Action section to offer those scaffolding pieces:

  • Get to know students, teachers, and community members, and greet them by name.
  • Express appreciation specifically and often.
  • Remember colleagues birthdays’, special occasions, and individual accomplishments.
  • Invite all staff members to attend professional development meetings.
  • Publicly acknowledge a colleague’s achievement in a staff meeting.
  • Provide families with a welcoming school culture.
  • Treat secretaries, office staff, volunteers, and custodians as valued players in a schools success.
  • Perform acts of kindness each day.

All of the bullet points are important steps to consider when building relationships, but two stick out for me.  When I think about the first bullet point, “Get to know students, teachers, and community members and greet them by name,”  I’m reminded of a time when a new staff member was publicly introducing students at an induction ceremony. She hadn’t had the opportunity to learn each student’s last name and I remember being embarrassed for her, and also ashamed of not having had the forward thinking to have prepared her in advance on how to pronounce the names of those students.  It may seem insignificant to us, but it isn’t for the kids. They remember things like that.

When I was a child, I frequented horse shows quite a bit. Inevitably, when I was on deck to enter the arena, my name was always pronounced “Ryan”. It infuriated me, not only because I was a girl, not a boy, but because I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for the announcer to read and pronounce my name, “Ryanne”.   Names are important, and greeting fellow staff, students, and parents by name go a long way in building relationships and letting others know we value them enough to call them by the correct name.

The other; “Treat secretaries, office staff, volunteers, and custodians as valued players in a school success,” really resonates with me.  Each and every member of the school is a contributing member, whether or not the school is a success or a failure. The playing field should be level, with everyone pulling their weight and working together for the betterment of the students we serve.  It’s difficult when even one person on the team doesn’t value this mindset. “Everything meaningful that happens in a classroom, a school, and a district depends on a bedrock foundation of mutual respect, trust, collaboration, fairness, and physical and emotional safety.” (9)  It involves ALL stakeholders in the district.

I believe we can all be leaders in the ongoing quest to instill positive, healthy relationships in our schools. It isn’t just the responsibility of the administration. Each and every stakeholder has the choice every day to choose kindness and build one another up instead of down.  Yes, some days are harder than others, and often I too miss the mark, succumbing to negativity and gossip, rather than shining the light. Becoming more consciously aware of my responses to others, and more intentional about seeking out positives, especially with fellow staff members is my inherent responsibility and one that I aim to get more resilient at.

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.

New at Reading by Example: Book Study Page, Google+ Community, Going into July

To help organize posts for Literacy Essentials and future book studies, as well as to promote conversation beyond what is written here, the following updates were made.

  1. New Online Book Study Page
  2. New Google+ Community
  3. Extending Book Study into July

Every time a post is written in relation to a specific book, it will also be linked to and within the corresponding page.

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The parent page “Online Book Study” offers general direction in how one might participate in the study.

Within the page for the book itself, readers can access every article written so far. They can also follow a link to the new Google+ Community for this blog.

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A widget in the sidebar of this blog will also be available to follow to this Google+ Community.

Additionally, participants in the book study can post questions and comments on the book’s page as a way to contribute and discuss.

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The list of posts may get quite long (which is a good thing) as we plan to continue the conversation around Literacy Essentials into July! New contributors are preparing articles related to Regie’s book.

We hope you have found this online book study informative and engaging. If you have additional suggestions for making this discussion better, please share in the comments.

May Round-up: Online Book Study for Literacy Essentials #litessentials

For the second year in a row, this blog has facilitated an online book study. In 2017, we read Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd edition by Jennifer Allen (Stenhouse, 2016). This year, we are reading Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellent, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018).

The following links go to the five most recent posts from May for the study:

The rest of this post addresses a few questions readers might have about the study.

How do I participate?

An online book study hosted on this site is not like a Twitter chat, or an in-person book club for that matter. You could almost describe this learning experience as a “slow chat”. Contributors write responses (blog posts) to the common resource. Readers write comments. The contributor may respond to the comments, in which case an actual online conversation may ensue.

Blog posts are also shared on various social media channels. Any time a contributor publishes here, I share their post on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and Linkedin. If you like what contributors here are writing, I would encourage you to do the same. If people are not on these social media channels, they can subscribe to this blog with their email address or their WordPress credentials.

Can I contribute to this study?

When a book is selected, a post is published calling for contributors to participate directly on this site. If you have missed this opportunity, readers are encouraged to still respond to the book by posting on their own blog or website. A nice example comes from the blog “Literacy Pages”: Meaningful Professional Development. By including the designated hashtag and Twitter handles when sharing out a post, it helps ensure that I and/or the author will pick up on it and promote it.

If uncomfortable at this time in writing your own posts, then readers are encouraged to comment on what is published. The goal of these online book studies, beyond promoting an excellent resource, is to grow every educator to become a better literacy leader. The more interaction we have in the comments, the smarter we may become.

Does the author participate in their book study?

Yes! As to how frequently and deeply depends on the author’s schedule. These are unique opportunities to interact with the author as you read and respond to their text.

Authors such as Regie are also likely to promote these posts on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. There is certainly a place for these types of connections in relation to their work. That said, high-quality professional development is a slow and steady process. There are no quick fixes. Improving in our own capacities is a lifetime of work, enjoyable and rewarding as long as we view it as more than just a brief encounter.

Question: How would you like to extend these conversations beyond the blog? For example, should there be a social media group set up to facilitate more discussion about the topics from the study? If so, where? Please leave your ideas in the comments!

 

Building Trust

As I began reading Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman, I felt as though she were sitting in the room with me. Beginning the book with an entire chapter discussing trust and building relationships, I wondered how she knew what I needed to read at that moment. For me, this school year has been unlike any other. I began my eighteenth year of teaching as a reading specialist who couldn’t wait to begin co-teaching writing in first and fourth grade. And the students did not disappoint! Those two chunks of time in my day were by far my favorite parts.

Fast forward to the middle of December…I had my second hip surgery of the year in December and just like that, my job as a reading specialist and my excitement about writing was diminished. I began the long road to recovery and put my job on hold for almost five months! I returned to work in May and found just how much I had taken trusting relationships for granted. I walked back into a building that had not stopped while I was gone. Instead, things changed, people changed, and I had changed. It has not been an easy road to begin rebuilding relationships with staff and students.

I think that something I have learned through my experiences this year is that while trust can be destroyed in the blink of an eye, it takes much, much longer to build a trusting relationship. Regie states, “When we feel personally and professionally valued, we are apt to be happier, more productive, and more likely to take risks as teachers and learners” (p. 10). How true! Coming back into a culture where I had not been for so long made it feel like I was invisible to the staff for a while.

I love that Regie give some simple suggestions on ways to build relationships with all involved in the school community. And one of the biggest suggestions that stood out to me was kindness. Seem simple, right? I find myself saying, “Be kind!” in all aspects of my life but sometimes I think it is hard to take our own advice. Reading this first chapter made me rethink how I approached each day, and I truly tried to focus on the kindness that I could spread to others. From the simple hellos when seeing someone to asking about his or her day to giving a hug when it was needed!

I think one of my favorite ideas from this chapter has to do with passion. Find your passion and run with it. Help students find their passions and use that passion to guide them on the road to learning. One final thought…as I walked down the hall taking two students to my classroom, a third student chased me down the hall to ask if she could come with me today. Umm…of course! She actually wanted to come spend time reading and writing with me. What a wonderful reminder of the trusting relationship I have created with this student.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.