In this week’s One Thing You Might Try . . . post, first- and second-grade teacher Zak Champagne nudges us to reconsider requiring students to share their ideas and helps us reimagine what it means to participate in the distance learning or socially distanced classroom.
Let me start by saying that my multiage classroom of first- and second-grade learners is built on the foundational idea that we learn best when each and every student has a voice and feels that their voice is important and heard. When we engage in classroom discussions, in person and online, students are asked to share their thinking openly. Their ideas don’t have to be fully formed, and they are encouraged to invite others into the discussion. We rely on all voices to make our learning more rich and complete. In short, I believe that students should share their thinking with our classroom community, and that it is equally important that they learn to listen to one another’s thinking.
So, the fact that I work to communicate the following sentiment to my students may come as a surprise.
It’s okay to not share your thinking.
If that sentiment is challenging your current thinking, let me share with you what that sounds like in my classroom. Consider this snippet from the beginning of a recent math lesson:
Mr. Zak: Today we are going to do a story problem. We’ll follow our normal story problem routine, and I’m very interested in hearing from you all about how you are thinking about this problem. Who can remind me of some ways you can participate?
Kia: We can share how we solved the problem!
Cora: We can listen to someone else share.
Mr. Zak: Nice! How else can you participate?
Liam: We can ask questions.
Mr. Zak: Great! What if you don’t want to share out loud today? Is that ok?
Mr. Zak: Who can say more about that?
Abed: We can choose how we participate. Some days it is ok to just listen.
Alessandro: Yeah. If I’m scared to share, I don’t have to.
Mr. Zak: That’s right! You know how much we love listening to our classmates sharing their strategies, but if you aren’t ready to do that today, it’s okay.
Students have important mathematical ideas
One of my core beliefs about the teaching and learning of mathematics is that each and every student has important mathematical ideas--regardless of race, gender, gender identity, age, experience and relationship with mathematics, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation or lack thereof, or sexual orientation. I believe that it is our job as teachers to take all of their important mathematical ideas and to help each individual student progress on their own mathematical journey.
For me, as a math teacher in the primary grades, this means that we need students to share those important mathematical ideas with their classmates individually, in small groups, and as a whole class.
So, how can an educator who believes in the importance of students sharing their thinking also tell his students, “if you aren’t in a place to share your mathematical thinking with the class today, that’s okay.”
Consider your own mathematical journey
Here is my rationale. Imagine you, as an adult, joined a mathematics course that was going to engage you with new math content that you haven’t yet been exposed to. And when you arrived the facilitator posed a math problem to you that was new and challenging.
Then, imagine that this facilitator says, “Hi everyone, we are going to work on a new problem today. I want you to solve this problem in whatever way makes sense to you, and when you finish this problem, I’m going to ask you to share your thinking with the class.”
If you are like me, that may seem VERY intimidating. For me to solve a problem that I don’t know how to do yet, and then be asked to share that thinking with my classmates within the first few minutes of math class could be terrifying.
Yet, this is what we ask students to do every single day. Every. Single. Day.
Sharing in remote settings
Now that many of us are teaching in online or hybrid environments, sharing is even more complex and potentially intimidating for students. We need to give extra grace to these learners as they navigate the technology component of sharing their ideas and the newness of learning content via an online medium. I’ve also been in many lessons in which a student is clearly being observed by a caregiver and that caregiver jumps in to either “save” them or “correct” their thinking. Or that caregiver is simply listening as the student responds, and I believe that adds an extra layer of pressure on that student as they share their mathematical ideas.
And with all of that, we owe students the opportunity to say, “I’m not ready to share today.” And we owe our class community the right to have a conversation in which we flat out say, “not sharing today is okay.”
This advice might sound a little scary. You might be thinking, “But how will we know they are paying attention?” “How will we know they’re learning?” “What if they never participate?” And, I understand those hesitations. However, the reward outweighs the risk here. It has been my experience that students who are given this freedom to choose not to share only exert it when they need to. They actually tend to be more likely to share their thoughts because our classroom truly values their thinking but doesn’t put unnecessary stress on having to share.
When we “require” our students to share their thinking we are creating a classroom culture of compliance. We are creating classrooms that conflate math anxiety.
Honoring the ways students participate
So, if we want our students to share their ideas, we have to start by giving them permission NOT to share. We have to give them permission to tag in and tag out when they are ready. Once we’ve let go of the idea that we must require students to participate or that every student must talk about every problem we pose, we can start viewing participation more broadly. We can honor that sometimes participation comes from listening to a classmate’s thinking, using nonverbal cues to agree or question a classmate’s thinking, restating a classmate’s strategy, or asking clarifying questions of a classmate’s thinking.
Allowing students to choose when and how to share is particularly true in remote and hybrid environments. Everything is new. Everything is different. And, while I want to hear their voices and how they are thinking about the math ideas we are exploring, I want them to feel safe more than I want them to share their current understandings.
We should give grace and understand that our students may not be ready to share their thinking on a given day. And that grace requires us to trust that they are going to participate in math class in lots of different ways that feel right to them.
Some days they share. Other days they listen. And each and every one of those days matter.
About the author
Zak Champagne is a Lead Teacher and Math Specialist at The Discovery School in Jacksonville, Florida. He teaches in a multiage classroom with 1st and 2nd grade students. Zak has spent over 20 years in education learning about how students come to learn mathematics. He tweets at @zakchamp and writes at www.zakchamp.com/blog.
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