Hitting The Wall – Instructional Strategies To Make It Through June
May 27, 2021

What a year! It is safe to say that the 2020 – 2021 school year has been one of endurance, stress, successes, problem solving, frustration, and flexibility. Regardless of where you live or what grade level you teach, the one constant about the year has been change. And, with change, often comes fatigue. It could have been the change from face-to-face to virtual to hybrid and then back to face-to-face, or it could have been completely restructuring the instructional practices you rely on to address the learning needs of your students. Whatever the change, teachers have continuously demonstrated their passion for ensuring students are learning in ways that are effective and meaningful.

I want to acknowledge, though, that this constant state of change can have a significant impact on the well-being of teachers. There has been no easy decisions this year. Each decision has been layered with considerations for COVID-19 protocol, addressing the ever-changing instructional landscape, and walking alongside and in front of parents as they navigate the process of supporting children at home. Recognizing the stress and pressure teachers are under each day, I want to offer some manageable and sustainable suggestions as we approach the last month of school. I honestly believe that teachers cannot work any harder than they already are. So, consider using some of the following in mathematics so that you are still providing meaningful experiences for students while also considering your own well-being. Together we are stronger and we can do this when we support one another.

1. Moving from I-Do to They-Do

Too often, teachers are at the front of the class explaining a mathematical concept to students. While there is evidence suggesting explicit instruction is an effective strategy, there is also evidence suggesting that students learn through doing. So, instead of planning explicit instruction, why not offer students a problem, provide them with chart paper or vertical non-permanent surfaces, and have them and their work serve as the basis for instruction. As students work, walk around the classroom and observe students as they engage with the concept. What this does is provides opportunities for students to learn from others, to focus on communicating their understanding and stumbling blocks, and using student work samples as the catalyst for learning. The teacher moves from being the presenter in the room to being a facilitator and participant.

2. Moving from Close-ended Tasks to Open-ended Tasks

How many times have we spent hours identifying or crafting questions that take students minutes to solve. It is not an equal distribution of work and effort. Instead of close-ended tasks whereby there is only one correct response, pose open-ended tasks to students so that they can spend more time on the task and work through the different layers within it. With open-ended tasks, there are different points of entry and points of exit, providing differentiation in the form of process and product. Open-ended tasks also provide teachers with opportunities to have a rich discussion with students at the end of the lesson. Through there being multiple points of entry and exit, the teacher can facilitate a consolidation activity that highlights student thinking, comparing and contrasting approaches applied to solve the problem, and demonstrating how there can be more than one solution to the task. The following is an example of a close-ended task and an open-ended task:

Close-ended Task:
There are four shelves on the bookcase at the front of the classroom. On each shelf there are 12 books. How many books are on the bookcase?

Open-ended Task:
There are four shelves on the bookcase at the front of the classroom. On each shelf, there are more books than the number of shelves. How many books are on the bookcase?

3. Challenges – Review as Games

When we approach the end of the school year, many teachers take time to review concepts with their students. Whether it is to summarize concepts for the year or to prepare for a provincial/state standardized assessment, teachers spend considerable time and effort planning review. Typically, this review involves the teacher modeling a concept and then providing students with countless questions addressing the specific concept. Planning the review, identifying and/or crafting practice questions and checking such questions can wear teachers down. What I want to suggest is to structure review as games. Having students play games involves opportunities for students to interact with classmates while focusing on particular concepts. Examples could be playing:

  • Jeopardy whereby the categories are identified by the teacher and students could create the different prompts.
  • Cards – using cards to make and compare numbers; for the purpose of probability; create numbers for operations
  • Dice – there exists numerous types of dice (traditional 6-sided dice with the digits 1-6; 4-, 5-, 7- 8-, etc. sided dice with digits or place value prompts; dice that has an operation symbol on it) that can be used to make numbers for comparison, ordering, operations, etc.
  • Games – decide on a concept that will be the focus for review. Assign students to teams and have each team share questions/tasks. These questions/tasks are used as the prompts for review and you serve as the facilitator of the exchange/game.

4. Technology – Are We Getting All We Can From It?

Many teachers likely feel that they have had their fair share of technology this year. However, I want to suggest some strategies that we can apply to shift the level of demand from teachers to students. The following are but a few ideas that you can bring to the classroom tomorrow to support you in moving forward:

  • Create a Google Slide that assigns one page to each student. As the teacher, you will decide if each student has a different concept, if a few students share the same concept, or if all students have the same concept. Students would be required to post information that is relevant to their assigned concept. They would highlight a definition of the concept, characteristics of the concept, examples of the concept, and non-examples of the concept. Students would also be required to identify or craft two questions that would necessitate students in applying the concept to solve the problem. Students would then visit the page of another student – reviewing the content and answering the assigned questions.
  • All too often, students are assigned content to post to an electronic classroom/platform. While this is important, it removes the dialogical aspect of learning. Feedback amongst students is significant. Once students post work, it is important for them to observe the work of others, identify similarities and/or differences, and comment on this learning journey. A consolidation task is an important part of the learning process and by having students provide feedback to others, they are consolidating their learning through synthesis.
  • Instead of writing/typing your feedback to student work samples, why not use dictation (speech-to-text). By using dictation, teachers can frame feedback as initiating conversation whereby students can respond using dictation as well. By relying on dictation for feedback, teachers save some time.

5. Math Fairs

Think of Math Fairs as an opportunity for students, individually or in partners, to engage with a concept that goes beyond the surface level. A Math Fair is a school, grade level, or classroom event that is meant to engage students in concepts while focusing on reasoning and problem solving. Math Fairs are intended to be a non-competitive experience whereby students work towards a particular goal. Within a Math Fair, students explore challenging tasks and share their learning with others through a gallery type approach.

6. Inquiry-based Learning

I have said many times that math is all around us. Math isn’t found just in textbooks. Whether it is spatial sense, angles, patterns, numbers, probability, measurement; we can find instances of it in our environments, both inside and outside school. Why not provide a concept and ask students to identify instances of it in their lives, both inside and outside of school. It is a great way for the teacher to identify if students can recognize instances of mathematical concepts and for the students to take the lead in the learning journey.

If you are considering using any of the above strategies, please reach out to me. I would like to hear your thoughts and offer any support I can. I am here to help.

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