Sunday, June 28, 2015

Learning to Fish

     The 2014-2015 school year is now over.

      And while the year held its share of challenges, there were also many highlights:

Much better than the status quo.

Andrew Stadel made me figure out how many times a swing's chain would wrap around a pole.

The faculty lounge coffee drinkers had to go without sugar and sweeteners for a few weeks.

How much do you think I could get for this on ebay?

     But overall I am most proud of my PLC.  This past school year, it consisted of myself, my co-specialist Theresa, our two fifth grade math teachers, our fourth grade math teacher,  one each of our third and second grade teachers, and one of the district's elementary TAG (Talented and Gifted) teachers.  My supervisor also sat in on several of our meetings.  We met once a month, for about an hour, alternating before and after school.  Our stated objective was to gain a deeper understanding of the Danielson Framework's domain 3b: Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques, but informally, I thought of our sessions as MTBoS 101.

     In September, inspired by Justin Lanier's course Math is Personal, we examined our own personal relationships with mathematics, and reflected on how those relationships impact our teaching practice. 
     In October, we watched Annie Fetter's Ignite talk, Ever Wonder What They'd Notice (If Only Someone Would Ask), discussed the benefits and advantages of using the noticing and wondering prompt as a way to open up student thinking in math class, and left with a homework assignment to use the prompt in class and report back the following month.
    During the November meeting, participants shared their experiences using the notice and wonder prompt, in subjects ranging from math to science to social studies.  We used this crib sheet from The Math Forum during our debriefing.
    The December meeting was a highlight.  I engaged the PLC participants in Andrew Stadel's File Cabinet 3-Act, asking them to work out the aspects of the task while at the same time keeping notes on their reflections, comments, and questions.  I was a little nervous during this one.  My supervisor was there, and was using the session as one of my two observations.

The group enjoyed sharing their solution strategies.  And my supervisor loved it.  It was his first experience with a 3-Act, and he later told me he used it during a department meeting at the middle school.

       At the January meeting we debriefed the File Cabinet 3-Act.   Several of the participants expressed feelings of nervousness and anxiety during the experience, and we discussed the importance of putting ourselves in the place of our students and maintaining empathy for their emotions.  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, especially for the thinking required during Act 2, where the students need to develop questions.  As one participant said, "It forces kids to use different muscles."  Yes!  The PLC also liked the fact that 3-Act tasks embed many different skills in a single problem, and expressed excitement about the prospect of integrating more 3-Act tasks into their practice.
     We kept the 3-Act momentum  going in February.  We used this comprehensive guide from the Georgia Frameworks as our discussion text, and focused on different ways to put students in collaborative groups during Act 2.  Participants were given time to explore the trove of 3-Act tasks created and collected here, here, here, and here.
     We spent the following month taking and submitting pictures that might inspire notice and wonder prompts, estimation activities, or even 3-Act tasks.  I collected them in a file on the district's shared drive, and during the March meeting we took a look at our efforts.  Some samples:

Jane submitted this picture, taken at her son's birthday party.  The group felt this had the potential to spark a lot of mathematical thinking, including: How many slices?  Unit cost per slice?  How tall is the stack?  How about categorize by topping and find fractional part of whole?

Jeff submitted this picture...

...followed by this close-up.  This also generated a lot of mathematical thinking, from: How much trash can the bin hold?  to: How much milk would you have to drink to make a trash can?

I encouraged the participants to continue taking mathematically inspiring pictures.  Our cell phone cameras are powerful tools!  My supervisor framed this activity in a conversation we had soon after this session by quoting for me the old saying: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime."  He made me realize just how empowering it is to be a creator of content, not just a delivery mechanism.  I wanted the PLC participants to feel that power.
     After the long, cold winter, the PLC was relieved to see signs of spring.  In April we explored the rich discussion opportunities afforded by Which One Doesn't Belong? tasks. We started with one that I made:

and discussed an example from Christopher Danielson's book:

The enthusiasm was contagious.  Several days later Larissa was proud to show me one that she had created...

...and I encouraged her to submit it to the site.  She learned how to fish!

     In May we dipped our feet in Jessica Shumway's book, Number Sense Routines:

I like this book so much that I had my principal order copies for all our primary grade teachers to use in our PLC next year.
I was interested in exploring the use of counting circles.  We started by doing a counting circle of our own, starting at 1 and stopping at 18 (there were 18 days of school left.)  Theresa recorded the count on the board, and the group noticed some interesting patterns.  We looked at several examples I had collected during the school year:

Grade 1

Grade 5

Grade 3

      During the June meeting, the PLC took a reflective look back and shared their important "takeaways".   Listening to the discussion, I could only hope that the teachers would carry their enthusiasm for noticing and wondering, 3-Act tasks, and an all-around more student-centered, engaging approach to teaching mathematics into the following year, that they would make these activities an integral part of their practice, and that they would take them and make them their own.     

And everyone got a present!


  1. That is a beautiful journey! One to save and share with other buildings.

    1. Thanks Elham.! I get to do a 3 day district-wide workshop this summer, and will use some of the same activities that I experimented with during the year with the PLC. So the word is spreading!

  2. You've written a thoughtful guide for teaching others to teach others how to fish! Thank you.

    1. As always, thank you for taking the time to stop by and comment!

  3. It's been a full year! Thank you again for blogging about it. It makes me think, if I get time, I'd like to look back on some of the changes this past year. I've tried out some of the same things as you, and there are some things that you've been doing that I'd like to check out for the coming year.

    Hope you have a great summer holiday, Joe!

    1. Thank you Simon. I hope you get some time this summer to reflect back on the year, and also to relax!