Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Fernwood Elementary Teachers Talk Intentionally About Math

In our latest installment of Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives, two teachers at Fernwood Elementary School volunteer their time and talent to facilitate a teacher book study of Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions. The result: the entire school benefits. Stenhouse editor Holly Holland talked with the teachers and principal involved.

Fernwood Elementary Teachers Talk Intentionally About Math

Teachers are accustomed to having school and district leaders determine the scope and format of their professional development. Rarely do they initiate, plan, and lead their own on-the-job training.

That’s why Fernwood Elementary School assistant principal JoAnn Todd was surprised and pleased last spring when two teachers asked if they could organize a faculty book study focusing on Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions (Stenhouse, 2014).

“It was kind of a grassroots movement,” which turned out to be a wonderful way to spread good instructional practices, said Todd, who now serves as principal of another school in the Northshore School District, near Seattle. “Having it be from the ground up, versus from the district or principal, gives it more legs, that genuine excitement.”

The book study also enabled her to develop the leadership skills of the two young teachers who proposed it. Kindergarten teacher Shelley Heathman and sixth- grade teacher Emily Schenck worked with Todd to organize and facilitate a series of ninety-minute sessions held every three or four weeks. Todd helped the teachers learn effective structures of professional book studies as well as strategies for managing time and coaching colleagues. Before each session the organizers shared their plans, and Todd offered feedback and work-arounds for possible problems.

Because Fernwood couldn’t compensate teachers for their time, they had to meet voluntarily after school hours. Nevertheless, eight other teachers agreed to participate with Heathman and Schenck.

“It was like-minded people from across grade levels coming together and being able to learn together,” Schenck said. “We also internalized it more because it was something we were having fun doing together. Instead of a passive recipient [of professional development], you are an active learner, which is what we want our kids to be.”

Having Productive Math Discussions

Schenck had taken a University of Washington course with Allison Hintz, coauthor of Intentional Talk with Elham Kazemi, and suggested using the book for a deeper exploration of how to guide classroom conversations about math. Intentional Talk features a range of methods for guiding classroom conversations about math—from open strategy sharing to targeted discussions—such as asking students to compare and connect and define and clarify.

“Open strategy sharing is typically the first way to get mathematical discussions going in classrooms,” the authors write. “It’s like having a good, basic recipe for a soup from which you can make all kinds of variations. Open strategy sharing allows you to nurture the norms needed for a productive math-talk community. And you can use this discussion structure to model how students should talk with one another” (17).
An open strategy sharing discussion typically begins by highlighting a problem that has multiple solutions and using instructional talk moves such as repeating (“Can you repeat what she said in your own words?”) and reasoning (“Why does that make sense?”) to help students verbalize their understanding.

The book also features lesson-planning templates for mathematical discussions. For example, the template for troubleshooting and revising discussions asks teachers to consider the following:
• What is the confusion or misunderstanding we will discuss or revise?
• What is the insight I’d like students to understand?
• What are the problem context, diagrams, or questions that might be useful to use during the discussion?

Schenck said one of the “immediate takeaways” she gleaned from the book was the reminder to focus students’ conversation on the learning objective of the day and to give them multiple ways to talk about it. When teaching students how to add and subtract negative numbers, for example, she realized that she often shared shortcuts but did not always explain them at the conceptual level. So, instead of only sharing that the quickest way to subtract negative numbers is to add them, she started putting up problems and asking students whether they were true or false. Through peer conversations they learned how to analyze, defend, and build on their knowledge of mathematical processes.

“To be able to talk about problems with peers and hear what they are thinking is so powerful,” Schenck said. “They’re not only learning math on a conceptual level but also good communication skills.

“When you are a teacher, you can always say, ‘This is the rule,’ and they will believe it, but to get them to say it validates their thinking.”

Classroom Observations and Videotaping

As part of the collegial book study, Heathman and Schenck wanted to videotape some lessons so teachers could see how the Intentional Talk strategies played out in different classrooms and at different grade levels. They offered to do the first sharing so teachers who felt vulnerable could get comfortable observing and reflecting as a group.

“Our conversations were more about what students were doing, not what we were doing as teachers,” Heathman said. “I think the biggest aha moments were that students are capable of amazing things. If we can give them the proper environment, which is a safe place to work together, they can take it away and enhance each other. Good teachers are just facilitators—that’s something the book helped us realize. Students are more than capable of enhancing their own learning just by having accountable talk with each other.”

Todd said she witnessed tremendous growth among the participating teachers. Seeing effective practices in action made all the teachers more aware of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, when intermediate grades teachers heard the rich conceptual conversations students in the primary grades were having about math, they realized that their older students could do more than they had previously asked them to do.

To demonstrate her commitment to the professional learning process, Todd volunteered to teach a lesson from Intentional Talk and videotape it for the study group to analyze. She also showed the teachers how the reflective work they were doing tied in with the state’s teacher evaluation system.

“Criteria two is about using questioning and discussion techniques” with students, she said. “I was pointing out, ‘Hey, guys, what you’re talking about is actually reaching proficient and distinguished levels on the state evaluation.’ It was validating to them. It made their work in the book study completely relevant.”

Extending the Lessons Learned

Schenck and Heathman said they hope to do another collegial book study in the future, perhaps with a more concrete plan for ensuring that the best practices spread throughout the school. Teachers believe the study was a valuable addition to their ongoing professional learning.
“It takes passion and eagerness to have an organic experience such as this book study,” Heathman said. “It was a very positive experience, and Intentional Talk was very accessible and manageable.”

Add comment April 22nd, 2015

Blogstitute Post 6: Teaching Through and For Discussion

Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz are the authors of Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions. They join us for our Summer Blogstitute with a post about the power of discussion to build a positive, supportive classroom environment. Please be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a package of eight free Stenhouse books from all of our participating authors — including Elham and Allison!

We wrote Intentional Talk because we know facilitating classroom discussions is something many teachers want to get better at and something that can be inherently challenging. We believe that teaching children to participate in genuine discussion is worth the effort—not just because it can be engaging for students to learn from one another, but also because the health of our society depends on our ability to engage each other’s perspectives and come to new understandings through dialogue. We want to teach through discussion but also for discussion.[1] And it never fails that when we are in discussion with children, we learn something new!

Our book describes different kinds of goals that teachers may have when planning and leading a mathematical discussion. In an open strategy sharing discussion, the goal is to get many different ideas out on the table. We contrast that with targeted discussion, which has a more focused goal around a particular idea. For example, a targeted discussion may occur when it’s time to really make sense of one strategy, investigate where an idea is going awry, or slow down and make use of a particular mathematical tool. Teachers will find examples and planning templates for these different types of discussions, and we encourage our readers to think about when these discussions might be most useful as a unit unfolds.

We all know that leading productive discussions is dependent not only on the teacher’s planning but also on how students participate. Helping students learn what it means to be part of a genuine discussion is a tall order. We think taking the time to cultivate productive norms in the first six weeks of school is vital to how well students take up listening to one another and also take risks in sharing new ideas.

One way to gain insight into what students think about participating in discussions is to ask them. Their responses can be great fodder for what we explicitly bring into our norm-setting conversations at the beginning of the year. What would we learn from students by asking the following kinds of questions?

  1. Have students draw a picture of themselves during math discussions. Ask: What did you draw, and why did you draw it?
  2. Why should we have discussions in math class? Why not just sit at our desks and do our own work?
  3. What’s the difference between a discussion and just getting a chance to give answers?
  4. How does it feel when the teacher calls on you?
  5. When your classmates are sharing their ideas, what are you thinking about?
  6. What does it mean to be good at math?
  7. What makes it challenging to share your ideas in math class?
  8. What do you think you learn from hearing how someone else solved the problem?
  9. What does it feel like when someone listens to your ideas and understands your thinking?

Classroom communities become places where students thrive when they feel invested, known, and connected to each other. If we want to have genuinely rich mathematical conversations, listening first to our own students can give us good ideas about how to create positive learning environments.

[1] Parker, W. C., & D. Hess. 2001. “Teaching with and for Discussion.” Teaching and Teacher Education 17: 273–289.

10 comments July 3rd, 2014

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