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mathematical discourse and critical creativity

I am constantly amazed by my 4 year old’s ability to use creative expression and find opportunities to learn in the what we adults might find everyday and mundane. He’ll build a crane from his Melissa & Doug mop and a ukelele stand and convince his babysitter to build a robot from magnatiles. He disassembles his Radio Flyer wagon to create a tuba and then marches around the living room like a one-man band. He notices so much when we’re out and about: a monkey riding a motorcycle above the door at Diesel Cafe, a solar-powered flower sculpture outside Tags Hardware, or a cow sculpture high above the Davis Square T station.

Like my son, I enjoy finding unexpected opportunities to learn, and I think that doing this has helped keep me going as a teacher-leader these past twelve years. The Boston Public Schools (BPS) Telescope Network‘s mission is to “connect BPS educators to resources, opportunities, and each other in order to improve student learning. First we find out what educators want and need to learn next in order to best serve the needs of their students. Then we seek out and magnify the bright spots: successful teachers, effective practices, and models of teacher-driven professional learning.” I’ve attended two of their Learning Sites (day-long school-based sessions that include an extended classroom observation and pre-and post-observation discussions) and found them to be such a valuable way to talk about classroom practice while gaining a variety of perspectives from other educators. I reached out to Telescope to see if I could potentially host a Learning Site in my own classroom, and ended up making a great connection while trying a new strategy for classroom practice.

A few months ago, a Telescope team member came to observe my class with one of my coworkers and a BPS math coach, then talk about possible focus questions. I appreciated the chance to have fresh eyes on my classroom practice and to hear positive, evidence-based feedback, such as:

  • The Do Now became the mini lesson
  • Collaboration took place in a lot of the tables and among many of the pairs (working together, helping each other, not overly reliant on teacher prompting or support).
  • My effort to make the content more authentic and connect to student interests (modifying an Illustrative Mathematics task by bringing in my kids and by connecting to a local author’s book sold on Amazon and Porter Square Books)
  • Adjusting in the moment when I had to reallocate time.
  • Being reflective and receptive to feedback discussions, and thinking about ways to grow my practice.

I usually gravitate toward project-based learning, especially because we’re using GRASPS assessments in our MYP and DP units, but I kept finding that students weren’t accessing the projects in the way that I’d hoped: for them to express their understanding creatively. Though PBL would have been popular for Learning Site attendees, it didn’t feel like the right focus. I’d also been thinking about mathematical discourse, and it turns out that Amanda, the BPS math coach, had a lot of experience using structured math talks. So, she and I started working on developing/amplifying some of the group work tasks by using some of her discourse protocols (in service of promoting student engagement and cognitively demanding task, potentially turning into a topic like “increasing student engagement and rigor through discourse”). She’s observed my class by watching videos that I posted on ClassForward (a platform used for DIY Coaching peer video feedback) and coming in to debrief and plan in person.

With Amanda’s guidance, I started by incorporating structured math talks (prefaced by 5 minutes independent think time on a task and followed by a whole-class discussion). She worked with me to choose the task, introduce the routine to students, anticipate student responses, and figure out ways to differentiate (push students who are quick to solve the task to extend their thinking and make sure that students who are struggling with the task have an access point to at least start talking about what they noticed or what questions they have).

We have the plan/observe/debrief cycle twice so far (once using an MVP task about function composition and once using an Illustrative Mathematics tasks about function transformation). Amanda warned me that the routine might feel awkward or fall flat at first, and to do it at least three times to give it a fair shot. I’m glad for that advice–consistency and refinement is important for the students and for me, and just concentrating on improving one thing (instead of ditching it the first time it went wrong) has taken some mental load off all of us in the classroom. I’m excited to see students making progress in talking about math or constructing the learning.

Winter break has afforded me longer blocks of “think time” than the usual fragments of time between teaching, meetings, planning, and parenting, so I thought I’d start tinkering with the ideas that Amanda and I discussed for my next unit. My initial plan for today was: start unit planner template, review last year’s materials, and incorporate Amanda’s suggestions. I was dreading it because I’ve felt so stuck for several years now: in spite of our “IB for all” mission, it’s been feeling more and more like students are getting discouraged by the rigorous coursework instead of feeling empowered to tackle it. I’ve felt like no matter what I try in the classroom, student engagement with the learning experiences and achievement on IB assessments has stagnated or declined.

My MacBook gave me an unexpected gift of reflection time–enough time to start to dig myself out of those doldrums. I’d been putting off installing updates (or restarting it) for a while, so instead of typing away, I opted to revisit a book recommended by one of my mentors: Intention: Creativity in the Classroom. She recommended it when our school started to pick up inquiry-based teaching. I thought it’d be great for supporting planning of GRASPS assessments, but I abandoned it a few pages in once the school year started to get overwhelming. Today I picked it back up and read about a hundred pages, after which I got inspired to revise my upcoming summative assessment (and therefore, the structured math talks that support students leading up to it) with an intentional eye to developing critical creativity. I hope that my classroom atmosphere will start to encourage joyful learning and embody the norm “everyone can do math.”

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