Guided Math, math

Sometimes I get into deep Twitter conversations that leave me thinking for days.

A few days ago, I got involved in one of those Twitter conversations that reminds me why I love having a professional learning network of strangers.  I love being pushed to think about my practice and how I might change it, or why I might keep it the same.

I have settled, I think, into a Math Workshop teaching structure rather than a Guided Math structure this year.  And by settled, I mean we do what suits us when it suits us.  When we are deep into a Context for Learning unit (a.k.a. The Fosnot Units) the workshop hums along.  When we are working on some of the other problems and activities, I feel like it still moves along, but not quite as smoothly. I’m cutting myself some slack for that.  But I am definitely not running a centre-based program with a set schedule that we follow (today is game day, tomorrow is iPad day, and blah blah -whatever else people do in centres.)

One day last week Mark Chubb posted about targeted instruction, and one method for organizing groups so those with similar ability levels, based on their answer to 1 question.  In summary, he wasn’t sure if students should be organized into ability groups.   It got me thinking about how I organize my students so I thought I’d write about that this week.  (You can read the post here.  It’s about a lot more things that what I have written today!)

I agree with what he says about students who are struggling being paired into a “low group”, and that this will only really serve to teach them basic skills and not push them into higher level thinking, thus widening the gap between them and peers who “get it” quicker. In his exact example, it would keep kids in a vocabulary learning group while their peers are moving forward to problem solving. I wholeheartedly agree that a child can learn lots of things about geometry while still, occasionally or always, calling a hexagon a “pentalellogram”.  

There are lots of ways groups and partnerships are organized in math class – or really any class.

  • Random partner assignments:  pulling sticks with names on them, or slips of paper, in order to create partnerships.
  • On the fly, sort of organized partner assignments:  the teacher calls out pairs, figuring out who to put where in the moment and trying his/her best not to leave two for the end who shouldn’t work together.
  • Planned in advance partnerships:  the teacher makes intentional learning partnerships in advance of the activity.

I have been using a method I love, and will continue to use, for a while now.  I plan out the learning partnerships I want in my class, and then I have those students work together, throughout the day, for an entire month.  Here is why I like this way of doing it:

  • I figure out who will work well together because of their learning skills, not just their subject specific skills.  I think this helps children see each other in a variety of contexts, and helps them polish their collaboration skills.  I like to pair two really quiet people together, for example, so they are “forced” to start talking and collaborating.  I like to pair two children who naturally fall into leadership roles in a partnership together so they learn to negotiate in their communication – hopefully learn to listen to each other and not just talk.  I like to pair three kids when one is perpetually absent – with a group of three it’s OK if one is away.  And on, and on, and on.
  • Working together for a long stretch of time means they get a lot of the social stuff out of the way early on, and spend the rest of the month more focused on learning. You know those kids who will spend a whole work period moving around the room trying to find the perfect spot?  Or the whole work period arguing over who is going to be the scribe (this mostly, but not only, happens when markers are involved!)  Well, when kids are working on the 2nd or 3rd task together, they don’t even talk about where to sit, or who will write.  They just go to the spot they picked the time before, check their memory to see whose turn it is to scribe, and get to work.  
  • I can make sure that students don’t have the same partner two months in a row.  Inevitably they will work with each other again and again.  This is especially true since I find myself using triads quite often and there are only 20 of us…sounds like a math problem!  10 months, 20 kids how many different combinations can I make??

So I think this all fits into my ongoing thinking about Guided Math vs. Math Workshop.  I think I am grouping based a bit on ability (I don’t want a strong grade 3 with a grade 2 who is still trying to make sense of it all…for both their sakes!)  but mostly I am thinking about how a group of 2 or 3 kids can push each other across the day – in math, but also in their communication skills (written and oral).  I get to shuttled around the room offering guiding questions and moving kids along.  I also know that if I don’t get to someone on Monday, there’s always another day or another time during the day when we can connect and talk about what is happening with the group.  I like that kids work with everyone in the class eventually.  And I like that I can spent about 20 minutes at the beginning of a month organizing groups, and then not worry about it in the end.

I do ask students for their input, and ask them to do some self reflecting.  Who do they want to work with and why? Do they think they are being a good partner?  What could they do better?  That sort of thing.  They like having the input, and they do get quite good at thinking reflectively about themselves as learners.