One morning last week I stopped by to check in on one of our grade 4 math teachers. She was busy at her back table, writing out a bunch of posters:
She explained that she was copying over problems from the student journal:
|Read these problems. When your eyes glaze over, raise your hand.|
|And you thought you were done!|
For an opening math message, I suggested she find a picture of one of the tall buildings and do a simple notice and wonder. Perhaps a visual and a small discussion might help set the table for some of the comprehension work that would follow.
When I got to class later that morning, I saw this up on the SMARTBoard:
|Trump Tower. The kids had some interesting observations about its shape and composition, and were very curious about its height.|
|They noticed and wondered...|
|...and came up with their own questions.|
|When they finally received the actual assignment, most of them were ready to give it a go.|
|Each student in the group got a different colored pencil. A way to make sure everyone participates.|
We stopped the kids several minutes before the end of class and gathered everyone together to take a look at some of their addition strategies under the document camera.
Later, I went back to take a look at the manual. This was Lesson 1-6: Guide to Solving Number Stories. The heart of the lesson, which was slated to take 30-40 minutes, was composed of three parts...
1. Math Message. Instead of the Trump Tower notice and wonder, here's what the kids were asked to do:
Read the Math Message problem on journal page 13. Be ready to explain what you already know from the problem and what the problem wants you to find out.
(I've voiced my criticism about math messages like this. I'll just say that many kids in the class would not even make it past the first few sentences before completely shutting down.) After an unspecified amount of time, the teacher is instructed to move on.
2. Using the Guide to Solving Number Stories. Instead of giving the kids the scenarios with the questions removed and asking them to notice, wonder, and/or come up with their own questions, the teacher was to refer the students to this guide...
...and use these questions...
- What do you know from reading the story?
- What do you want to find out?
- How can you find the number of stories Terrell needs to climb?
- What will you do first?
- What strategy or tool can you use?
- What is the unknown quantity?
- What number model might we write, using a letter to stand for the unknown, to represent what we want to find out?
- Are you finished? Why or why not?
After helping the class come to a consensus regarding the correct solution to this problem, and reviewing some of the different addition strategies employed by students, the teacher is to move on to the next step.
3. Solving Multistep Number Stories. The teacher is instructed to put the students in partnerships to complete journal pages 13 and 14. Remember them?
Back together as a whole class, the teacher is instructed to ask volunteers to share solutions to the problems.
This is pretty standard stuff. And kids need strategies to solve number stories. But it's unimaginative. There's too much whole class, teacher-directed discussion, which means more opportunity for kids to tune out. My quick meatball surgery was intended to lower the barrier to entry to these difficult-to-access word problems, and to get the kids more involved in their own learning. It's nothing amazing or revolutionary, only the best I could do given the time that I had. The classroom teacher had good instincts. It's only her second year teaching, and I'm confident that given a little time and some good PD she will be able to make those changes and decisions on her own.
But it's really not a sustainable model. Teachers, especially elementary school teachers who are responsible for teaching multiple subjects, do not always have the time to perform the kind of surgery lessons like this require. They may not even be aware that other types of strategies, activities, and instructional practices exist. A lesson from a curriculum interested in making math meaningful, accessible, and engaging should deliver them right to their classroom door. Is that an unrealistic expectation?