Episode #90: What First Day Of School Activities Should I Use? – A Math Mentoring Moment
That there is Whitney Becker – a middle school math teacher from Alabama. Whitney joined us to discuss what activities are great on the first day of school to show students what we as teachers value instead of just going over the rules and syllabus.
This is another Math Mentoring Moment episode where we talk with a member of the Math Moment Maker Community who is working through struggles and together we brainstorm possible next steps and strategies to overcome them.
- What activities should I use on the first day of school?
- How do I show my students what I value early in the course?
- What activities are good for group work?
- Should we do a math activity on the first day?
Whitney Becker: And I'm standing in the back of the room, first period, I started my day out this way, and I'm hearing kids saying things like, "The plan that's best for you may not be the plan that's best for me. Doesn't it all depend upon the number of texts that you send? Hey, just grasp that and let me show you." All of these kinds of great things. Like, "Wait, I didn't start that way, we started with a table of values." And-
Jon Orr: That there is Whitney Becker, a middle school math teacher from Alabama. Whitney joined us to discuss what activities are great on the first day of school to show students what we as teachers value instead of just going over the rules and syllabus.
Kyle Pearce: This is another Math Mentoring Moment episode where we talk with a member of the Math Moment Maker community who's working through problems of practice. And together we brainstorm possible next steps and strategies to overcome them. All right, let's queue up the music. Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast, I'm Kyle Pearce from tapintoteenminds.com.
Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr from mrorr-isageek.com. We are two math teachers who together-
Kyle Pearce: ... with you the community of Math Moment Makers worldwide, who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark curiosity-
Jon Orr: ... fuel sense making-
Kyle Pearce: ... and ignite your teacher moves. All right, my friends, Jon, are you ready to not only start this episode, but also start off the school year right?
Jon Orr: Yes, yes, let's get ready for this jam packed episode. But first, we'd like to say thank you to all of you Math Moment Makers from around the globe who have taken the time as always, you're so great, to share feedback by leaving us reviews on Apple Podcasts.
Kyle Pearce: This week we want to highlight Jolin Plateau who gave us a five star rating and review that said-
Jon Orr: "Thinking deeply, I am enjoying the podcast as well as the online class these two gentlemen offer. The Common Core Standards in the US say that we need to get students to think more deeply, but Kyle and Jon actually provide a solid method for this to occur."
Kyle Pearce: We can't thank past online workshop participant, Jolin, enough for taking the time out of her day to not only listen, but to help us increase our number of ratings to over 250 from around the globe, and over 100 reviews.
Jon Orr: If you haven't taken a moment to go and give us an honest rating and review on Apple Podcasts, we would certainly appreciate it.
Kyle Pearce: All right, and if you've been listening to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast for some time now, it's likely that you've heard us raving about the use of vertical non-permanent surfaces in our classrooms to get our students up and actively fueling sense-making. While regular old chalk or whiteboards do the trick, and we shouldn't stop using them, oftentimes, there aren't enough of them in our classroom to engage in a vertical non-permanent surface's lesson with our students to accommodate all of our groups.
Jon Orr: Well, that's where our friends at White Book come in. Toby and Frank from White Book have these super cool, durable and portable flip chart packs that are great for filling the vertical non-permanent surface void in your classroom or wherever you're facilitating.
Kyle Pearce: Yes, Jon, and I even use them at conferences and workshops to get our teacher participants up and actively fueling their own sense-making. And now, you can too, because our friends at White Book are an official Make Math Moments partner which means you can grab a flip chart pack for 30% off by visiting whitebook.com/moments.
Jon Orr: That's whitebook.com/moments. And if you're ordering for a school or a district and need more than just a few packs, you can head over to whitebook.com/momentsbulk for up to 40% off as well.
Kyle Pearce: Now, let's head into our discussion with Whitney. Hey there, Whitney, welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast, we're really excited to bring you on today to chat with another Math Moment Maker. How are you doing today? And where are you coming to us from?
Whitney Becker: I am fantastic today, and I don't know if you guys picked up on the accent or not, but I'm from Alabama.
Jon Orr: Oh, nice, nice, nice. I'm always interested in the weather, and people have actually commented on that, Whitney, on the podcast, people have messaged us to say, "Why is Jon so concerned about the weather in different places?" I don't know, I just I'm. But, Whitney, what is the weather like? I know we're recording this in the summer, and I'm sure people who are going to be listening to this also be listening to this relatively new in the summer or in the fall, but, Whitney, tell me a little bit about the weather right there?
Whitney Becker: I need you guys to be concerned about the weather in Alabama, because it is 90, it's the highest 98 today, with a heat index of 110.
Jon Orr: Yeah, that's what I thought.
Whitney Becker: Yes. And humidity here is terrible.
Jon Orr: It just makes me feel better about our winters. It's like, okay, we can handle summers. We also have high... Kyle, I think you were saying the temperature at your place was very high last week, but our winters are all very cold, so we like to hear summertime stuff too. Whitney, tell us a little bit more about yourself, what's your teaching role? How long have you been teaching? What classes are you teaching? Fill us in on that story.
Whitney Becker: This year, I will be starting my 12th year in the classroom. I started teaching high school... Seven years teaching high school... I'll just be honest with you, I knew I wanted to get into teaching because I liked working with kids, I was always told I was good at math. And now, I've come to realize that I think I was a good memorizer. So-
Kyle Pearce: Nice, welcome to the club.
Whitney Becker: Yeah, well, I was a good memorizer, but I liked math. So, I started teaching high school. After seven years, I transferred to a school a little bit closer to where I live. And first time I went and met the principal, he handed me a schedule, and I saw seventh and eighth grade all day long on that schedule. And I don't know if I've ever told [Mr. Joiner 00:06:30], my principal, this, but I really thought about running, I really did, and-
Kyle Pearce: Run for the hills.
Whitney Becker: Yes. I thought, I don't want to teach middle school, that age kid, I've never heard anything good.
Jon Orr: Whitney, I'm going to interrupt you here just for a moment, and I apologize, I want to know... Because I also, in one of my first years taught seventh grade, and I was a high school teacher, but I want to know on your opinion, what is it that scared you about seventh and eighth graders versus ninth and 10th graders?
Whitney Becker: I'm not sure, I felt like they were so young-
Kyle Pearce: Maybe scared of the unknown.
Whitney Becker: I was, and I'm such an advocate for that age kid now, because I feel like they get such a bad reputation, but they're fantastic. It's a fantastic age group to be teaching.
Jon Orr: For sure.
Kyle Pearce: They're hitting puberty, they're kind of coming into those teenage years and sometimes, maybe don't always make the best choices, right? In terms of how mature they are, at certain times. I remember vividly my eighth grade. And I remember it was almost like... Especially for the boys it was... Here in Ontario, eighth grade is the last grade of elementary school before you head off to high school. So, it was almost like our last hurrah, and we didn't act very appropriately at all times.
So, I feel like I can see how that might be a little scary, but I'm with you. Now that I'm out of high school and I'm going across the grades, I get to visit schools, high schools, I get to visit elementary schools, I'm in all different age grades, I don't know if you'd agree with this, but it's like you get in there and you start to go, "Oh, my brain was telling me stories that I'm not even sure how accurate it was." And obviously, it sounds like your thinking wasn't all that accurate after the fact. Is that sort of how things unfolded for you?
Whitney Becker: Absolutely, I am so happy in middle school. It took me a good six months, first semester, to get used to the bathroom humor and body odor and the middle school elements there.
Kyle Pearce: Yeah, it goes with the territory.
Whitney Becker: Yes, but I am in my niche, I love middle school. But when I got to middle school, I realized that the way that I had always taught chapter by section, I'm going to stand up here and talk for an hour, and then you're going to take your homework home and do it... I'm embarrassed, but that is how I taught at the beginning of my career.
Kyle Pearce: Welcome to the club again. Yeah.
Whitney Becker: It doesn't work, it does not translate to middle school. It shouldn't have happened in high school. But definitely, does not translate to middle school. And so, I thought, I've got to have help, this isn't happening like I wanted to. Once again, I was a little burned out in my job. I didn't love coming to work every day. And here in Alabama, we have a fantastic initiative, it's AMSTI, Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative. And I reached out to the people that work there, the AMSTI specialistS, and they were so instrumental in coming into my classroom and just transforming me as a teacher. And introduced me to people like you guys, I found Tap Into Teen Minds and those kind of performance tasks. And I just kind of embraced that way of teaching and I loved teaching again. And you know what? I hate, and I want to apologize to those kids I taught the first seven years, but you do the best with what you know then, and when you know better, you do better.
Jon Orr: I think it's very common that teachers feel inaudible burnt out, and it's including us, Kyle and I have talked about that many times here on the podcast, that we were in almost the same situation where we taught that same way that you described, and we realized that we hated certain classes. We inaudible Ontario, that's about to change for grade nine. But I remember saying to my department head when I was... After teaching grade nine, applied for many years in a row saying, "I just can't do this anymore, I don't want to teach the applied level kids." And I remember saying that out loud, and reflecting on it a year later or so and thinking, I shouldn't have to say that, I shouldn't be a teacher if I'm saying, "I don't want to teach this group of students." And it was probably because I just didn't know how to relate to those kids or get those kids engaged where it was really easy, right? It's really easy to teach kids who are super eager-
Kyle Pearce: Or compliant.
Jon Orr: ... motivated. Or compliant, right? They're compliant or motivated. And probably not for my lesson, it's probably compliant or motivated because of other aspirations or goals, or parental involvement, or other external motivations that are motivating them to make sure they're paying attention during my lesson. But I remember having that thought, that I need to make sure that... Those kids actually probably don't need my help, it's the other kids that need my help. And that's what kind of started my change a number of years ago, and it sounds like you did too. But, Whitney, I'm curious about your program that helped you, you said it was AMSTI, do you have a link? Or can you restate that?
Whitney Becker: amsti.org is where you can find out more about that. Especially if you're an Alabama teacher, you definitely need to get involved. They have helped me so much, it really has, and I still work closely with AMSTI specialists, and it's just been a fantastic experience, and they're always there to kind of mentor me and help me through different things.
Jon Orr: I see, I see. Good, okay. We'll forward that in the links for the show notes, people might be able to, especially from Alabama, jump on that. Whitney, also, since we're on this topic, I'd like to go down this road for a minute, because we're talking about your transformation, and I'm wondering if you can think back to that transformation of where that shift happened. What would you say is that first lesson or first activity, or an activity that you were like, "This is how it's going to look, this is how it's going to change?" And then, how did you discover that activity?
Whitney Becker: I listen to the podcast every week, so I have thought long and hard about what my... Actually, I didn't have to think too long and hard, I know what my Math Moment is. It took place in my own classroom. The change isn't easy, it's not easy to admit when you're wrong. It's not easy to admit, I haven't been that effective. And so, when I finally made up my mind, I'm going to change the way I'm doing things in my classroom, it does take work, the planning ahead of time, and just committing to that process, because students can be resistant at first.
And so, the first year, this group of students, they're now 10th graders, and I can remember their eighth grade year... I had taught them as seventh graders, had them as eighth graders that year, close to the end of the year, we were doing this illustrative mathematics task, I like to use a lot of those in my classroom, and I still remember, it was called Cellphone Plans. I-
Kyle Pearce: That's come up on the podcast before this particular task, Jon, I'm going to have to think about it, but will put it in the show notes.
Whitney Becker: It's a good one, it brought out a lot of conversation in my room. So, my students are in groups, I hand them the task, they each get a piece of chart paper, I want you to chart your thinking, your explanation, your solution. And I'm standing in the back of the room, first period, I started my day out this way. And I'm hearing kids saying things like, "The plan that's best for you may not be the plan that's best for me. Doesn't it all depend upon the number of texts that you send? Hey, just grasp that and let me show you." All of these kinds of great things. Like, "Wait, I didn't start that way, we started with a table of values." And in the back of my classroom, it's kind of this moment I get chills, and it's like, "Wait, this is what I wanted to happen in here." Every student was engaged, every student's participating.
I'm kind of watching them solve this task, graph their solutions, they derived equations, tables of values, and I'm saying, "This is my summative assessment right here, they've got this." It's one of those moments as a teacher where you're like, "This all paid off. This is great." And what I never heard, which made me equally as happy was, "Hey, this is a systems of equations problem," or, "Hey, look back at chapter six, section three, and we can reference this." They didn't necessarily know to call it systems of equations, that's what they were doing, but they were just problem solving. And it was just a moment where I felt like it was... Everything I had worked so hard for was worth it, and it was because of my students.
Kyle Pearce: I love it, I love it. And when I come back, the part that I love most is, it's hard until you actually sit back and reflect on it. But I want to go back to... You described the way you were teaching for... It sounded like a good chunk of time, and Jon and I can both relate, we were in a very similar boat. And we weren't feeling excited about going into class, you had said, it became a place that you weren't excited to be in. And students... Like you said, high school, sometimes, kids, they're like, "Okay, I've got to do this," or "I'm going to go," or they're self motivated, like Jon said, for whatever reason, maybe at home, there's a big emphasis on how well you perform in school, but it's not because they actually are passionate about doing it.
And it sounds like in this scenario, I'm picturing it in my mind, this productive struggle that's been created by allowing students to just problem solve, and just work through problems. And obviously, there's intentionality behind that, you're selecting the tasks for a specific reason, and it sounds like it took some time to get from where we all were earlier on in our career, and you had mentioned it, it was almost like a bit of maybe an embarrassment. And recently, we were talking to someone, they quoted Robert Kaplinsky, who said, "When you think back five years about your lessons and the way you were teaching, you should be embarrassed." Now that might be extreme, we don't have to be embarrassed, but his point is that we're growing, right? We're trying to get better. And obviously, if we're continuing to get better, today's lesson is going to feel a whole lot better than a year ago, five years ago, which is fantastic.
Now I'm wondering, is there a way we can go back in your memory, and go all the way back to your experience in the classroom as a student, to help share a Math Moment from your personal experience? Now, for some people, it could be a defining moment that helped them become a math teacher. Sometimes it's a positive one, because they were motivated, and they loved it. For other people, it wasn't so positive, it was one that sort of sticks out in their memory for maybe the wrong reason. What would be the Math Moment that you remember from your past as a student?
Whitney Becker: I think we all, because it's just the way we were all taught. We kind of have those moments... I hear people talk about a lot where you've got that anxiety riding in the car on the way to school, you've got to do your timed multiplication tables tests, you've got all of these things going on, but I had a... My aunt was my inaudible teacher in high school. She has just been a mentor to me throughout my entire career. And I can remember sitting in her class and seeing how much she loved her job. And I kind of thought I want that, I want a job like that where I love coming to work every day.
And she just made such an impact on me, not even as my aunt but as my teacher, that I wanted to be that for somebody else. I hope to be, I don't know that I'm there yet, but she's influenced a lot of kids over her career, and that's just a Math Moment for me, when you see a teacher that you know cares about you, and they love being there, and they love their job, it really makes an impact on you as a student.
Jon Orr: Totally, I'm glad you share that, and I'm sure that your aunt would appreciate you sharing that here. We definitely have moments where people share this, it's a common thing that people are sharing moments that have to deal with an actual teacher that helped them out, or a mentor, or someone who has clearly been a guide, and I think that's so important. Obviously, teachers need that, right? Our job, when we're first starting out, it would be amazing if we were paired with a teacher on a regular basis, this kind of mentor-mentee relationship. We need that, and that could be... The lack of that also, I think, possibly, is the reason that many teachers just don't continue with the job, is the isolation and the lack of kind of constant communication, and feedback bouncing off people.
Usually, you're in your class with kids, you're isolated, and you only get to talk with other teachers when it's lunchtime or your prep time. And I think more kind of mentorship is great, and it sounds like you had some mentorship early on in your career. Whitney, let's shift gears here a little bit, you shared this fantastic success with the illustrative math and Cellphone Plan, but also your kind of mentoring moment, and let's shift it to kind of a growth area, what's the problem of practice that you've been thinking about, or are working on? Or, what can we help you with here today, so that we can all three of us kind of dig in on?
Whitney Becker: One thing that I really want help with this year, and I know that the upcoming school year is uncertain, right now, my district has decided that students have a virtual option or a face to face option. I plan to be back in the classroom the second week in August. So, what I really would like you guys help with is helping me to plan a first day or even a first week that really sets the tone for my math class. They're coming into seventh grade, which can be an intimidating year. Also, they may not... If they're coming from the school that I currently work at, they had a fantastic sixth grade math teacher, that may not be the case for all of the students. So, I want to set the tone and let them know this math class is different.
In my class, we work collaboratively, we do the performance tasks, we share work. I want them to know that it's okay to have discussions in there, it's okay to be wrong, this is a safe space. And this class is not going to be me standing up here talking for an hour, I'm going to be in the trenches with you guys, and I just want them to know it's different. I remember going to school and inaudible through seven classes a day, filling out the student information form and listening to all of what I could not do in that class on the first day. And so, I just want something different this year.
Kyle Pearce: I love it. I love it. And actually, we're going to be referencing a number of different resources here, and really kind of chatting this out. And we typically like to dive deep into some of these problems of practice that come up, but this is one where... Again, we're not going to, I guess, give advice, but we're going to talk about all kinds of different ideas that come up with. So, I'm wondering, can you paint us a picture first though... I know what my first day of school looked like and sounded like for many years, and Jon was very similar, and to be honest, when I look back to them, I think, wow, I definitely sent kids home with the wrong idea. And actually back then, maybe not the wrong idea, it was exactly the idea of what was going to happen.
Jon Orr: That was the right idea. Yeah, it was probably-
Kyle Pearce: Yeah, exactly.
Jon Orr: You showed them exactly what was going to look like.
Kyle Pearce: Yeah, for me, it was all about setting a tone, I did it in a light-hearted, and I used to always try to be kind of a bit of a funnier teacher that could joke within reason, obviously, not getting too out of hand. But I had a good relationship on that front, but it was still pretty drill sergeant in my classroom for a number of years. So, I'm wondering, what would the first day of school typically look like? And maybe, feel free if you want to go way back what it might have looked like, and then maybe the last couple of years, I'm guessing it probably has changed a little bit over time.
Whitney Becker: For a long time it was, I'm going to hand you the syllabus, I'm going to hand you this information sheet to fill out, and then I'm going to stand up in front of the classroom and tell you everything you're not allowed to do. We're going to go over all the procedures and you are going to be bored to tears and only hear about maybe five sentences that I said, because it sounds like every other teacher that you've sat through their class that day. They hear that seven times, that's got to be terrible. Last year, I actually did a little STEM activity on the first day of school, and it went over really well. But I teach kids... If I had them in seventh grade, I have them again in eighth grade, now I can't do the same thing that I did last year. So, I'm really looking for something that just makes them go home and think, "I can't wait to get back to Miss Becker's class tomorrow. I think I can do math in her class. It's going to be a fun year."
Jon Orr: We ran an episode last year on How to Start The School Year Off Right, and we're going to kind of dive into some of those tips, but also give you some new tips here today. I'm wondering before we kind of dive in, because my class looked exactly like that, Whitney, and Kyle's did too, and I think most people's did. And I think that it's no fault of our own, it's just the way we were brought up, it's the way we experienced first day to look like. It also makes sense in a way, that you want to lay out the ground rules. You want to make sure that kids understand where you're coming from and what the expectations are. I think we were used to do it because we thought that this is what is going to make good learning, without telling the students that this is why we're telling them all these ground rules. Maybe we should have back then, we're like, "This is what we believe."
This is something that I try to do on the first day now, is kind of communicate to my students what I value in class. And so, when we think back to how I started class a number of years ago, similar to what you're describing, I was communicating what I was valuing in class, but I was saying that what I value in learning is being compliant, taking notes, listening, making sure that you follow all the rules, which are important things, I think, to some extent. But I think what we can do now is change what that first day looks like, because you might want to include other values, we value collaboration, we value voice, we value uniqueness, we value identity, we value so many other things that we have not communicated on day one.
So, I'm wondering, Whitney, before we kind of get into some suggestions here for you, I want you to kind of imagine what that day looks like if you changed it, right? So, all of a sudden, it's like now there's this first day that you spent time building, you spent time creating, inaudible look like? Maybe you already have an inkling of what kind of activity crosstalk.
Kyle Pearce: And I'm wondering too, Jon, if we added on to that, how are you hoping kids are going to feel? When they walk home, one of the big things that I'm thinking about, not only on the first day, but obviously, very important to start, we always say, starting off the school year right, but I'm thinking about, what do I want a student to say when they go home and a parent asks them or a guardian asks them at dinner, "Hey, what happened during math class today?" Or "How did math class go?" And I don't want them to say it was like, "Oh, it was entertaining." I don't want that. There's certain things I want students to feel when they leave the classroom.
After that first day, how do you want them to feel, I guess, during class? How do you want them to feel as they're leaving class? And then, how do you want them to kind of look back on it, I guess, as they're looking forward and thinking about, "Wow, what's this semester or this school year going to be like for me?" Can you paint us a picture of kind of what you're after, personally, because our goals... Or my goal might be a little different than Jon's, and Jon's might be a little different than yours, and that's totally cool. But it might help us get an idea of sort of the direction that we heading.
Whitney Becker: I'm totally open to any suggestions, but like I said earlier, I would like for them to know that my classroom is this safe space, you can speak up in here, we're going to have this discourse going on. You might struggle a little bit in here, and that's okay. I'm not going to leave you struggling, but I'm going to allow you to struggle a little bit. I also feel like students come to math class with this math anxiety, I know I did, and I wasn't a bad math student. So, I can only imagine what those students feel like coming into seventh grade, because it's really their first year of junior high in my district. They're nervous, and I just want them to leave with a sense of confidence. I want them to look around my room and see the manipulatives, and see inaudible set up in tables, and just feel like, like I said, "I can't wait to get back to Miss Becker's room, I really think her math class is going to be different."
Jon Orr: I'm wondering, if you're going to say, we want a safe space and we want to build confidence, before we kind of get into specifics about activities, what's going to help you build confidence?
Whitney Becker: I think you've got to start with something maybe low floor, high ceiling, hey, I can do this, everybody in here is able to do this. And just give them this feeling of, it's going to be different, no matter what happened in my elementary math classes, I really think I can turn it around here.
Kyle Pearce: I love it, and I think you've addressed so many different things. And I loved as well that you're sort of, in a way, kind of gradually working through probably, in a similar order to how we would probably go through things. So, first off, with that confidence, with that safe space, excited to get back. What I'm hearing is, this building trust and building confidence, they kind of go together, it's very hard for them to kind of feel safe without feeling like they're heard. So, we'll first probably start with maybe some ideas around how we can get to know our students a little bit. And I heard you say about, I want my students to struggle, but not too much. So, to me, that sounds like a productive struggle, we don't want it to be unproductive. And you had mentioned about math discourse, actually being able to have conversations. So, I'm feeling collaboration, I'm also hearing you saying, "Low floor, high ceiling," so getting into those problem based type lessons, it sounds like we are right on track with what we're thinking about.
So, it's almost like working from this trust building, confidence building, getting to know one another, but then also, maybe on the first day, if at all possible, depending on how long your classes are, I always love to get into a math task as well, to sort of continue this idea that, okay, we're building trust and confidence, but we're not just going to make it all like, everyone's happy today and then tomorrow, the hammer comes down and the math happens, right? Because we can do that as well. If we avoid all math on the first day, there's still this big question mark for them, right? It's like, "Oh, Mr. Pearce seems like a nice guy and everything but what's math going to be like tomorrow?" So, maybe having a little mix of both might be helpful.
So, we'll come at it with a couple of ones, and maybe we'll start with a couple go-tos that we actually recommended during our How to Start the School Year off Right episode, which I believe is Episode 38, is it not, Jon?
Jon Orr: Let's-
Kyle Pearce: I'll double check that here as we go. But Jon, why don't you start us off with a go-to, you've mentioned it on the podcast in that episode and also in some previous episodes, so maybe mentioning one of your go-tos describing there a little bit, and then we'll also point you in the direction of a couple of resources. I know Dan Meyer has got a really cool page, we'll put that link in the show notes as well on some activities and things for the first day. So, Jon, kick us off, I'll double check on that episode number.
Jon Orr: Yeah. So, we're going to share a couple of resources that we've used in the class and I continually use in my classes, and I use it for all different grades, from... I teach high school, so grades nine through 12, I use the same sort of activities for each grade. But like Kyle said, it's kind of a mix of a little bit of math, a little bit of thinking, a little bit of curiosity building, a little bit of confidence building, showing values, valuing uniqueness and creativity. So, these are kind of things that I value and also make sure that we communicate that. But we communicate that through the activities with our students.
So, one thing that I like to start off with is an activity in my class that I learned way back when I first started teaching, but I continually use, and we referenced it here before, and it kind of opens the door to getting kids to share their beliefs and common conceptions about mathematics and their understanding about what mathematics is, and what mathematics isn't. Some of my classes will have students who have this negative connotation towards math or negative feeling towards their math history coming into grade nine or grade 10. And for those kids, we want to make sure that they are heard, that it's okay to not like math right now, or it's okay that you have this bad feeling. Because I think kids will get scared in saying like, "I hate math." Or, "I do not like math." And then, they're going to think like, I'm going to get scolded for saying that, or the teacher is not going to accept that's my actual feeling towards math.
I use this in combination with Sara VanDerWerf's Name Tents, we'll put that link in too. So, she's got an activity where kids will write a name tag, like you're going to do on a first day to try to get all the kids names down as quickly and as accurately as you can. And so, on the front facing of your name tent, they put their name, but on the inside, I have them do a couple of things just like Sara does on her activity. One of the things though is, I have them complete the phrase, math is like, and so it's like, math is like... I write it up on the board or I have it up on the screen. And I write ... and then, their job is to complete that statement. And they can complete it in any way they like. So, some kids will write math is like a swamp, or math is like a roller coaster, or math is like taking out the garbage, you get a variety of different things.
Whitney, I'll be honest, I guess, it's less and less every year this happens for me, but somebody will write math is like a box of chocolates or something. And as I said, less and less, not as many kids remember that reference. But what it does is, they'll write, and then they have to write a sentence to explain it afterwards, like why is math like a swamp, or why is math like... And then, that's where they start to piece together what they're feeling about their current understanding of what math class is, or isn't. And so, they don't have to share that, that's a private thing in the name tent inside. I often share some that are already pre-written, and I often have kids share those out, or read it to their elbow partner.
So, that's an activity that I think opens the door to letting them say, it's okay what math is and isn't, and it's a trust kind of building thing. And I read them all, and then I kind of respond to them in the name tent later on, inaudible the next day. And then, what I do is, I keep those, for sure, for the whole year, and then I hand it back to them on the last day of school, and say, "This is what you thought math was like, and then now, write it again or write a new one, and see if it's similar or the same, or have we changed anything along the way?"
So, it's not the whole rules, I don't do the rules and I don't do the syllabus anymore on day one. There's no harm in taking a couple of minutes every class for the first couple of weeks to... If a situation comes up, then we should talk about, this is the expectation here in this class, it doesn't have to be all in the same day. So, that's one, kind of small activity. It doesn't take long, but it also opens the door to saying that it's okay to feel and have feelings that normally we might shut down.
Kyle Pearce: And, Jon, I was thinking as you were describing that activity, there's so many modifications you can make to any of these activities. So, for example, I've seen or heard about teachers who have done a four corners activity version, where they put four different images, and they have students go gather in those corners to discuss, they go, "Wow, that image over there really resonates." So, one's like this big mountain peak image, right? And a bunch of students go over there. This other one over here is a bunch of rocks with one flower growing through it, right? And you have these different images that could represent their feeling towards math. And then, the other thing you can get in doing this variation is that they also get a little bit of this small group kind of... Who knows what it's going to be like when we go back this year? Is this possible with the social distancing issues that we might run into if you are in a face to face environment?
But one thing that's really nice is getting them there, to kind of thinking about what that image means to them, and giving them a nice little, we'll say, segue into what we want math class to be, which is having kids coming at problems from different perspectives, and helping to describe your perspective to another student. So, another way that that four corners activity could work is, again, you could have four different images, and now you can even ask them to go even more personal and say, "Go to the image that resonates with you about your own personality." And they can essentially, describe why they're at that image and share that with someone else. So, something popped into your mind about who you are as a person. So, again, trying to get at the individual in your class so that they feel like, wow, I am unique in my own skin, and this is who I am, and being able to share that with other people.
So, if you want to get more personable about the person, that's something that you can do. I know that Dan Meyer... We'll include a link to Dan Meyer's blog. He's got a post called What to Do on the First Day of School. And he's got a few different links there, and there's great stuff in the comments that are... Yeah, they're super resource rich. And I know one of the activities that I have used in some past years is an activity called, Who Am I? And it's just like a template that Dan has. It's kind of a big composite figure with all these different shapes, you've got rectangles, triangles, a circle that's split up into different segments. And basically just asking students about who they are, different questions about their favorite food, TV show. So, again, a more general overview of who they are, and what they are as a person, or how they see themselves.
So, these are some... We'll call them the categories of trust building, getting to know the individual, and really trying to help students share who they are in their own unique way. And again, there's no right or wrong way to do it. And again, in that blog post by Dan Meyer, there's tons of goodness in the comments. There might be something that just sort of resonates with you, and that you're going like, "Yeah, that's the one." But there's probably going to be a bunch of them that you're looking at going like, "Wow, these are all great." So, one year, you might just try one and see how it goes. Or maybe if you have different classes, you might try a couple of different ones to kind of see how they go, and maybe you might land on a favorite.
Whitney Becker: Wow, I love those ideas. And you guys are right, especially at that middle school level, relationships are key. You've heard that phrase, "You've got to love them first," and that's so true. And so, I love all of those suggestions.
Jon Orr: I want to give you one more because we've talked about a couple so far, just about trust building and uniqueness and identity. But we want to give you, I guess, two more specific ones, one about group work and showing collaboration, and showing that we're going to work together. That's something that you mentioned, that you'd want to make sure kids feel about the first day. And then, we'll do another one about some more math specific, like Kyle had mentioned. So, the one that I've been using lately, I also got from Sara VanDerWerf, she's got some great resources on her site. I'll throw a link into the resources here, which is called 100 Numbers To Get Students Talking. I've used it... And again, all of my classes, even from grade nine to grade 12, I modified it for some of the classes, and she's got some modifications on her site.
But here's how... Basically the gist of this thing. It's about group work and what makes good group work. So, you actually get a nice lesson out of this in a consolidation to talk about... Have students decide what makes good group work, because we want to make sure that they know that they value this. So, again, this is done on the very first day. So, Sara provides you basically a sheet that has the numbers from one to 100, but they appear very randomized on the sheet. They're in different sizes, they're all over, they're mixed up all over this piece of paper. And it's a simple activity where your students are going to stay in groups of four, and they have to highlight in order. So, whoever goes first, second, third, fourth, you've got an order, and you have to highlight in order the numbers.
So, if you're first, Whitney, you would highlight the number one, you find number one on the sheet and just highlight it with your color. And make sure everyone has a different color, it kind of works out nicely in the end, if you did this. And then, Kyle, if he was second, he'd highlight two, and then if I was third, I'd highlight three, and if we had a fourth, inaudible highlight four, and then it would be back to you, Whitney to highlight five, and so on. And so, that's it. You do that once and you give the kids two to three minutes to highlight as many numbers in order as they can. And so, they're actively kind of searching for these numbers, and then most kids will get up to 30, maybe 40, not even that high on the first go around.
And then, what you're going to do is to just kind of ask like, what did you notice? Or talk about some strategies, and kids share out. So, have your groups share out strategies. And if you do this, kids will start to recognize, because of the color coding. Actually, Sara has uniquely created this page so that you can see that, all of the numbers that the first person would see would be in the top left quadrant of this page, and all the numbers that the second person would highlight would be on the top right quadrant, and so on. So, there's actually a little pattern into the numbers. And so, if someone shares that pattern, then all the other groups can see or hear that, and then they can go back and go, "Okay, let's try this a little bit faster."
And so, basically, you do a couple iterations of this, and students start to work together a little bit faster, they help each other. And so, at the end of this, you'll get a couple groups get all hundred numbers in the two to three minutes that you give them. And then, the rest of this activity is about asking them to brainstorm what makes good group work. Because they just worked in groups, they work to help each other, all that kind of stuff. So, it's got numbers in it, I've modified it, a couple of them, and Sara has provided some modifications too. They could be addition problems that you're going to highlight the answer, or it could be exponential problems. There's lots of different variations of what numbers actually go on the page. But it's a great activity on day one to highlight that you as a teacher are going to value group work and collaboration. So, it's like, let's throw out the rules. Let's just dive into this so that we can feel comfortable.
And that's another message that we make at the very end of their brainstorming of group work is, that we are going to get comfortable with each other in here, and that's a priority for us. We cannot learn well, your brain cannot function as it needs to, if you are worried about who that person is over there, and are they going to say something weird or inappropriate to me? Or am I going to look foolish? Are they going to judge me? We can't have that, your brain can't work if that's going to happen in class. We've got to kind of squash that as quickly as we can, or let everyone know that we're not going to allow that kind of behavior in the class, or dynamic in the class. And we want to show right away that we're going to value group work. So, that's one that we can value group work. And then, Kyle will probably share one about math in a moment, but let's get your thoughts on the group work one.
Whitney Becker: I love that, because one thing I realized when I came to the middle school level was that some of them are coming from that classroom where they've been straight rows of quiet kids, and so you have to model what group work is. They've forgotten because I feel like kindergarten through second grade, maybe, we sit in groups, and we work in small groups. And then, for whatever reason about grade four, everything that's worked in the past, we decide to throw out the window and put them back in straight rows. So, they've forgotten by seventh grade what group work is. So, I love that suggestion because it does model what I'm expecting out of group work.
Kyle Pearce: Absolutely. I love this, I'm so happy that you're getting some takeaways here. Again, setting that tone for the year, it is so important because really, day one, it's going to set a tone for at least that first week, and obviously, day two, you want to kind of build on that and continue moving forward. As we come back and think back to earlier in the episode, I'm a big advocate for ensuring that we do include math on day one. So, trying to find a way... Now if you have shorter period or blocks, some teachers are working with 45 minutes, that could be extremely difficult, so you may not be able to get to that point, or maybe it can be something very small, that isn't going to take too much time. But I'm a big advocate for trying to incorporate that math. You had mentioned, low floor, high ceiling, you were talking about collaboration, so we're big fans of all of these things.
We won't be able to get into all of them here today, but one thing that I try to really focus on in day one is this idea of curiosity. And for those who have listened to the podcast, you'll know that we talk about our three-part framework, how we're sparking curiosity, we're trying to fuel sense-making, and we're igniting our teacher moves. So, I'm hyper focusing on the curiosity path day one, maybe fueling sense-making, we might not get as deep into that as we'd like, depending on how much time we have. I used to work with a 75 minute period, so I definitely would get to that place. But I want students to know that, we're going to be approaching math from a curiosity standpoint. And I want them to kind of extend any of the earlier activities where we were asking them to share their perspective, to share their view on mathematics, or just their view on the world and how they feel, I want them to feel that in math as well.
So, for those who are new to the three-part framework, I would recommend... And, Whitney, I'm not sure if you've had an opportunity to do this, but checking out... We have a four-part video course that's available for people to check out at makemathmoments.com/lesson one. And when you head there, there's actually four lessons, but that first lesson kind of takes you down the curiosity path. So, trying to set up a task that day that's going to pave a path or kind of form a path of curiosity that will lead to sense making. And we tend to select obviously, tasks that do spark curiosity, but that are also very low floor and very high ceiling. So, this is going to vary depending on the grade level, but for you, in your grade seven and eight classes, tasks like Stacking Paper task, we'll put the link in the show notes. Or Jon's R2, D2 task is great with sticky notes, which is kind of a variation on Andrew Stadel's File Cabinet task.
Those are tasks that can really be fun because there's opportunities to build that curiosity path by withholding information, building anticipation, and getting students to estimate through noticing and wondering. Those are tasks that kids really have a good time with, but then also provide an opportunity for you to kind of do a mini model of how we're going to consolidate a lesson, and how we're going to take student work and use them to elicit our connections that we're going to make in our consolidations. So, there's a lot of stuff going on there, but I would say, trying to ensure that we do something mathematical day one. It is math class, they probably had a horrible sleep the night before, right? Either super excited. Just like teachers, right? Teachers are up all night nervous, and kids are nervous too, right? Even the most popular student or what other kids perceive to be as the most popular student is probably not having a great night's sleep.
We want to make sure that after day one, that they have a great sleep. That they're like, "Wow, math class is going to be this way." Now, for some students who were memorizers like us, that actually might scare them because they're like, "Oh, boy, I don't know this game that Mr. Pearce is sharing with me here." But that's something that I think will be easier to address, maybe that uncertainty of like, "Okay, so what's the math going to be like in my classroom?" So, that would be a huge recommendation for us.
Obviously, in the show notes, we'll include things around vertical non-permanent surfaces, for example, and some group work. Jon, I don't know if you can jot that down in the show notes here, as we're going, just so that you have some ideas of, what could group work look like? What could maybe even assessment look like? We can toss those out there as well. Because this is a big, big thing that we're trying to do here, which is a huge shift from how we used to teach, at least for Jon and I and Whitney, it sounds like you were kind of in the same camp as us.
So, I'm going to pause there, and I want to get your perspective, when we're thinking about the math piece, how are you feeling about that? Are there any takeaways or any maybe questions that are still floating around in your mind as you're kind of thinking ahead? I'm hoping you're visualizing sort of this first day in your head, and you're seeing it come to light, and you're seeing... It might not be fully crystallized, but that you're kind of seeing how this might actually pan out, and hopefully be really exciting first day of school. So, let's turn it to you, let's get some of your thoughts here.
Whitney Becker: I'm ready to go back to school tomorrow. But as you guys were talking, I'm visualizing my classroom and I'm thinking, I like all of these so much. You could take the first 10 minutes of each class... The first week, and kind of introduce a different thing. But you're right, I do want to include math on the first day, that's so important. I want them to know that I value all these other things, but I do want you to learn math and be a problem solver. So, I love all of these suggestions.
Jon Orr: It's great to hear that. Whitney, I'm wondering, if you think back to this conversation right now, all of the suggestions that we made, and also maybe even just the conversation we had, and think about, what is the biggest takeaway, or the most important lesson you're pulling from this conversation here today?
Whitney Becker: I really like the highlighting numbers... The Sara VanDerWerf activity, because it models that group work. But then, I came back and I also like, math is like, and I like that you gave the students an opportunity at the end of the year to be reflective. I'm a huge proponent for both teacher and student reflecting on their practices. So, I like all of them. Please don't ask me to pick.
Jon Orr: crosstalk.
Kyle Pearce: Well, you highlighted a couple which is great. And I really like how you've shared that idea around reflection, because Jon and I, we say it all the time after our Math Mentoring Moment episodes, when we say goodbye to our guests, and then after in the bumpers, we share this idea of self-reflection, right? And I think that's so key. So, I'm so happy that you value that not only for us as educators, but we need to have our students doing the same thing, right? And through self-reflection comes, I think, more value when we're providing them with descriptive feedback. Because if they're not reflective, then that feedback sort of goes to waste. So, that's big for me, anyway, and that's kind of a takeaway I'll take from this conversation. So, thank you for that.
Whitney, we have had a blast here having a chat with you, we're excited for the first day of school just like you are. We're recording this early in July, Jon and I, so we just... For about a week and a half, almost two weeks now, have been off on summer vacation. So, we've got little ways to go, but we're already thinking about that new school year. So, on behalf of the Math Moment Maker Community, I want to thank you, Whitney, for becoming vulnerable and coming onto the show, and sharing some of the thoughts and the wonders that you had about how to start that school year off right. We hope that you found it valuable, and we hope that everyone listening is appreciative of you stepping up and coming on, and sort of getting us all thinking and prepared for that first day of school.
Whitney Becker: Well, I really appreciate you guys helping me out. And I am so appreciative of all that you two are doing to change the culture of mathematics. You have been instrumental in helping me change and I know you have for so many others.
Jon Orr: Oh, thanks for saying that. It's comments like that that keep, Kyle and I coming back to talk to folks like you and keep the podcast going. We do love every minute of chatting with so many teachers from all over the world. So, thank you again for joining us, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your holiday. And don't be shy to give us an email on how that first day went, or share that in our Facebook group or on Twitter.
Whitney Becker: I absolutely will. And I just want to wish the best of luck to all teachers everywhere because we are about to enter this year of uncertainty. And I do think it's so important to remember... And I've just felt the need to say this, as a parent, and as a teacher, it's so important for us to go into the school year and not make the comment, that these kids are so behind. Because these kids are all exactly where they should be. Every kid in the nation missed the end of school last year, so.
Kyle Pearce: Yeah. Later today... We're recording on a day we're going to be having our academy question and answer web calls, so we're going to be hopping on. And that's been coming up a lot on these web calls. And I'm so happy you said it, because I'm hoping... This is my prediction. My prediction is, we're going to go back to school, and we have lots of teachers all over the place who are so worried about how quote, unquote behind students are going to be. But I think it's actually going to be the opposite. I think a lot of teachers are going to realize it's like, wow, kids are kind of where they usually are, which is, with a lot of gaps, with a lot of loss over summer, realizing that maybe the way we approached things didn't really stick as well as we had hoped, right? If we were teaching the way, Jon and I were teaching for many years, kids were learning things and memorizing things for two weeks, two and a half weeks, and then after that test, it was sort of gone from the brain, right?
And in high school, we see it a lot with exams. We get into exam time, and it's like, you feel like you're reteaching the entire course. That to me, is a huge indicator that you know what? Maybe we have to shift how we're teaching. And I don't think it's going to be as big of an issue as maybe many are predicting, I could be wrong on that, but that's my feel. So, I really appreciate you making that comment. And I hope everyone listening... If you are in a blended or as I always say, blended or worse model, meaning fully online, coming this August or September depending on where you are, keep in mind that everything we've discussed here can be done online, make sure that you check out some of the recent podcast episodes where we do talk about remote learning. And check out the academy, makemathmoments.com/academy, we've got a 30 day free trial for you to go in there and take our Make Math Moments From a Distance course.
So, just throwing that out there for those who are listening and maybe concerned about that upcoming school year. So, Whitney, thanks for bringing it up. We want to thank you again, and we hope you have a fantastic remainder of the summer as you now start piecing together some of that vision of your first day.
Whitney Becker: Yes, I'm excited to get started. Thank you guys so very much.
Kyle Pearce: As always, both Jon and I learned so much from these Math Mentoring Moment episodes, but in order to ensure that this learning sticks, and it doesn't wash away like footprints in the sand, we must reflect on what we've learned. An excellent way to ensure that this learning doesn't fade away is to reflect and recreate a plan for yourself to take action on something that you've learned here today.
Jon Orr: A great way to hold yourself accountable is to write it down or even better, share it with someone, your partner, or a colleague, or anyone with the Math Moment Maker community by commenting on the show notes page, tagging us @makemathmoment on any social media platform, or head over to our free private Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K-12.
Kyle Pearce: And like we mentioned at the top of the episode, using vertical non-permanent surfaces is our thing for a Make Math Moment's lesson. So, if you're looking for a durable and easy way to create non-permanent surfaces in your classroom, White Book has you covered.
Jon Orr: White Book is an official Make Math Moments partner, which means you can grab a flip chart pack for 30% off by visiting whitebook.com/moments.
Kyle Pearce: That is whitebook.com/moments. And if you're ordering for a school or even your district and you need a whack-load of White Book products, head to whitebook.com/momentsbulk for up to 40% off as well.
Jon Orr: Are you interested in joining us for an upcoming Math Mentoring Moment episode just like Whitney did here, where you too can share a big math class struggle? Apply over at makemathmoments.com/mentor, that's makemathmoments.com/mentor.
Kyle Pearce: In order to ensure that you don't miss out on new episodes as they come out each week, be sure to smash that subscribe button on your favorite podcast platform.
Jon Orr: Show notes and links to resources from this episode plus transcripts can all be found at makemathmoments.com/episode90, that's makemathmoments.com/episode90.
Kyle Pearce: Well, my friends, until next time, I'm Kyle Pearce.
Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr.
Landon P. S.: And I am Landon P. S.
Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.
Landon P. S.: High five for, Landon. inaudible.
Kyle Pearce: Perfect.
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