Congratulations on starting a new school year! Whether you’re a new teacher or a returning veteran, the beginning of the year is a rush of nerves and (hopefully) excitement!
In this post, I’ll describe several math activities I do with my class during the first few days of school. I’ll highlight the qualities that I believe lead to math success for all students:
mathematical discourse: explaining, questioning, listening and reasoning
First of all, everyone gets a fresh start.
When students walk into your classroom on the first day of school, they come with a host of math memories. Some are good, some are awful. You might have access to students’ scores and work from previous years. The first few days of school are not the time to hold students to their pasts. Kids can develop strong math identities, and we want them to leave those at the door.
We want to challenge the kids who have had easy success. We want to show those who have struggled that they have qualities they can use to meet or even exceed grade level expectations. Over the summer, students might have grown and matured, and concepts that have never clicked before might be ready to click! At the beginning of the school year, everyone gets a fresh start.
Even YOU get a fresh start!
Teachers often have math baggage, too. You may have had some difficult experiences in math class when you were growing up. I often see teachers struggling when students share ideas or strategies for solving math problems that are non-traditional. This is your year to let it all go! Enter the new school year with an open mind and a willingness to learn from your students. Some of my favorite strategies are those I’ve learned from kids!
Allow for success with creative math.
Many students think that when it comes to math, you either have it or you don’t. We want to begin disproving this from minute one of the new year! By facilitating activities that require creativity, we can develop growth mindsets among even the most challenged (or successful!) students.
One activity I like to do starts with a hundred chart. I show students a hundred chart and ask them if they’ve seen one before. Usually, they say yes. I tell them that there are so many reasons I love this tool. However, sometimes, I think it’s funny that the 1 box is the same size as the 4 box or even the 54 box. I ask them to imagine what it might be like if the 1 took up one box, and the 2 took up twice as much area, and the 54 took up 54 boxes of area.
I tell them I’m going to give them some time with grid paper and color pencils to design a hundred chart in which the number matches the area in squares. They won’t have enough time to finish, but they’ll have plenty of time to give us an idea of their plan for this new math tool.
Highlight qualities that matter.
After 20 or 30 minutes, we do a silent gallery walk of their new hundred chart designs. I tell them the rules: We walk around the room in silence, looking closely at our classmates’ work. We don’t touch anyone’s work, we just make careful observations. Sometimes we take notes, sometimes we don’t. This time we won’t.
After the gallery walk, I pull students down to the carpet to sit in a circle with their design. I ask them to raise their hands and comment on the craftsmanship, creativity, and clarity that they saw. I highlight the importance of these qualities in all school work, and really emphasize how these qualities help students have success in math.
Many students think that accuracy and speed (fluency) are everything in successful mathematics. I want students to know that in my class, quick accuracy is secondary to working carefully, solving problems creatively, and being able to explain strategies clearly.
Observe team work.
Often, after students have had time to design their own area-based hundred chart, I’ll put them into groups of about 4. I’ll ask them to show each other their designs, and then co-create a design to neatly illustrate on large grid paper. Observing them share and listen helps me get to know my new students.
Watching them work together to come up with one design is particularly fascinating. This activity highlights leadership and flexibility. During a debrief, I’ll highlight the importance of sharing and listening in math class. I want students to know they’re not alone in learning math. They learn from me, they learn from each other, and they do their part in helping others learn.
Use games and fun activities to introduce and encourage use of manipulatives.
One game I like to play during the first few days of school is Race To 6 Shapes. I can’t tell you how much I LOVE pattern blocks. I use them a lot during math, and this game is a fun way to introduce them and their properties.
Before playing Race To 6 Shapes, you can introduce the blocks with another game, a circle game called “Did You Know?” Each kid has a turn holding a pattern block and asking the next kid, “Did you know …(this is orange/a square/a rhombus/a shape with right angles/a block/stackable/ has 6 faces/etc.)?” Students are encouraged to pay attention and try not to repeat any attribute.
After a few rounds of Did You Know, ask the class to brainstorm ways they can use pattern blocks as math tools this year. Some of the many ways are: as counters, for learning area, as fraction models, understanding geometry terms, for designing patterns, while measuring angles.
Once you’re all madly in love with pattern blocks and their many qualities, you can teach the class Race To 6 Shapes. In this game, students take turns picking a card from a stack of attribute cards. If there is a pattern block with the attribute on their card, they take the block. Everyone playing is racing to collect 6 different pattern blocks.
Sometimes a card will fit more than one block, and the player must choose. Sometimes the attribute on a card will not fit any of the blocks, or the player will already have the only block shape that fits the attribute.
The game is straightforward and fun. It’s a great way to start using math vocabulary and introduce a wonderful math tool, pattern blocks.
Share hopes and fears.
When students have had several interesting, creative math experiences, ask them to share their hopes and fears for math this year. Tell students that we all have strengths and challenges. We are a community here to support each other, and no one needs to feel embarrassed about parts of math they’re worried about. You may be surprised about how open students can be. Even the most successful students often share anxieties. They may also share very specific goals. For students with fixed mindsets, hearing that “good” math students have fears and goals can be very powerful.
Do not bore them with review and fact practice … make challenges fun from the get-go.
In those first few days of school, it’s important not to bore students, or to separate them into those who know their facts and those who don’t. It is possible to provide them with activities that require critical thinking and invite students of all math levels. Take Marilyn Burns’ “Dealing in Horses” problem, for example:
A man bought a horse for $50 and sold it for $60.
He then bought the horse back for $70 and sold it again for $80.
What’s the financial outcome of these transactions?
This problem may seem simple at first. Students will soon realize that their classmates have solved it in different ways and have different answers. What a perfect time to introduce mathematical discourse and accountable talk! Students may not know that an important part of math is explaining and discussing strategies and solutions.
Students who struggle with numbers may find that they can clearly explain their steps for solving this problem (even if they got the answer wrong or couldn’t finish!). They can also ask good questions that help others improve their explaining skills.
The “Dealing in Horses” problem is an opportunity for your class to brainstorm ways to show and explain thinking. Students might want to use play money, base ten blocks, drawings, or equations to help others understand their process.
Excitement is contagious… make math exciting! Push problem solving.
Are you excited about fact practice and review? I’m not either. Your students aren’t either.
In those first few days of school, it is critical that teachers set the tone for the year. Math is a time to think creatively, figure things out, and grow closer as a class through discussion and collaboration. Everyone will contribute, regardless of their past experiences. Doesn’t that sound exciting?! Here’s to a great new school year!