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Asking Better Questions

I am sure we have all seen it at one time or another – those math questions that make us cringe, furrow our brow, or just plain confuse us because we can’t figure out what is even being asked. Sadly, these questions are in math programs more often than they should be and even though they may completely suck, they do give us, as educators, the opportunity to have conversations about ways we could adapt them to better learn what students truly know. These conversations happen all of the time on Twitter and I really appreciate talking through why the questions are so bad because it pushes me to have a more critical lens of the questions I ask students. Through all of these conversations, I try to lead my thinking with three questions:

  • What is the purpose of the question?
  • What does the question tell students about the math?
  • What would I learn about student thinking if they answered correctly? Incorrectly?

Andrew posted this question from a math program the other day on Twitter….

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I tried to answer my three questions…

  • What is the purpose of the question? I am not sure. Are they defining “name” as an expression? Are they defining “name” as the word? What is considered a correct answer here?
  • What does the question tell students about the math? Math is about trying to interpret what a question is asking and/or trick me because “name” could mean many things and depending on what it means, some of these answers look right. 
  • What would I learn about student thinking if they answered correctly? Incorrectly? Correctly? I am not sure I even know what that is because I don’t know what “name” means in this case. Is it a particular way the program has defined it?

On Twitter, this is the conversation that ensued, including this picture from, what I assume to be, the same math program:
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When a program gives problems like this, we not only miss out on learning what students know because they get lost trying to navigate the wording, but we also miss out on all of the great things we may not learn about their thinking. For example, even if they got the problem correct, what else might they know that we never heard?

The great thing is, when problems like this are in our math program, we don’t have to give them to students as is. We have control of the problems we put in front of students and can adapt them in ways that can be SO much better. These adaptations can open up what we learn about student thinking and change the way students view mathematics.

For example, if I want to know what students know about 12, I would just ask them. I would have them write in their journal for a few minutes individually so I had a picture of what each student knew and then would share as a class to give them the opportunity to ask one another questions.

After I saw those the problem posted on Twitter, I emailed the 2nd grade teachers in my building and asked them to give their students the following prompt:

Tell me everything you know about 12. 

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Ms. Thompson’s Class

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Mrs. Leach’s Class

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Mrs. Levin’s Class

Look at all of the things we miss out on when we give worksheets from math programs like the one Andrew posted. I do believe having a program helps with coherence, but also believe it is up to us to use good professional judgement when we give worksheets like that to students. While it doesn’t help us learn much about their thinking it also sends a sad message of what learning mathematics is.

I encourage and appreciate conversations around problems like the one Andrew posted. I think, wonder, and reflect a lot about these problems. To me, adapting them is fun…I mean who doesn’t want to make learning experiences better for students?

Looking for more like this? I did this similar lesson with a Kindergarten teacher a few years ago. Every time I learn so much and they are so excited to share what they know!

Extending an Area Task

I just love when students are so excited to extend an activity! During the Notice and Wonder portion of this lesson, a lot of students wondered why those four letters were the ones given. Was it because they are at the beginning of the alphabet? Is it because they have the same area? What would happen with other letters?

Today, Mrs. Sharp gave them the chance to play around with others letters. She asked them to design their own letter and find its area. It is so interesting to see their choice of letters, the way they chose to decompose the shape and their math work all around it. Many of them made multiple shapes because they just wanted to keep going…that is always so AMAZING to hear!

I also see all of this being SO helpful when they find volume of figures composed of two non-overlapping rectangular prisms in 5th grade!

Here are just a few of the creations they came up with in class today:

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Area Task in 3rd Grade

Since the 3rd graders just wrapped up their unit on area, I thought it was the perfect time to do a task that hit on some really important ideas about area, while also encouraging them to move beyond counting squares. I wanted to see how (or if) students broke apart shapes to find the area, how they used addition and/or multiplication to more efficiently count squares, and if they used any other strategies such as subtracting out blank spaces or decomposing and rearranging pieces to find the area.

I chose this task from Illustrative Mathematics.

We started with a notice/wonder activity:

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They had so many great wonders that inspired me to think about a follow up activity about other letters, but I will chat about that later.

Since they wondered if the letters all had the same square units and if they were all the same, I used that as the lead into the activity. Even as I was giving directions, however, I saw a majority of them start to count squares by 1. I paused them, told them I was so excited to see they knew counting the squares would get them the area and knew they all could find the correct area that way so we were going to try something different. I asked them to find the area without counting all of the square by 1.

In looking at the work, I saw them as a bit of a progression of thinking. I put them in order here of how I see students moving through these ideas about area.

As I expected, some counted each row and added them. It was great they know area is additive, but I would love to ask this student if there is a way they could have used multiplication to  make it a bit easier.

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Some added in chunks, to which I would love to ask the same question. I was excited to see them cutting the shapes up into rectangles in places that made sense.

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Some students made some larger cuts and I would love to have them meet with the student above and discuss how they decided on their cuts.

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Some used some of the strategies above but also relied a bit on symmetry.

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Finally, I saw 2 students moving squares from the “bumps” to the empty spaces.

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It was always interesting to me that in 5th grade I would still see students find the area of shape on a grid by counting the individual squares even though I know they had better strategies. I think it is the fact that students jump into doing things without thinking about the things first. This is why I think journal writing is so important. It allows students to be more reflective about their decisions.

I asked them to write about which shape was the easiest to find the area and which was the most difficult. It was interesting to see some focus on the size of the number they were working with while others focused on the shape and how it could be partitioned.

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As a follow-up activity, I am going to ask them to choose a letter where they would use the same strategy they used with C and a letter where they would use the same strategy they used with B.

 

Fraction Talking Points: 3rd Grade

The 3rd grade is starting fractions this week and I could not be more excited. Fraction work 3-5 is some of my favorite stuff. Last year we tried launching with an Always, Sometimes, Never activity and quickly learned, as we listened to the students, it was not such a great idea. We did not give enough thought about what students were building on from K-2 which resulted in the majority of the cards landing in the “Sometimes” pile without much conversation. And now after hearing Kate Nowak talk about why All, Some, None makes more sense in that activity, it is definitely not something we wanted to relive this year!

We thought starting with a set of Talking Points would open the conversation up a bit more than the A/S/N, so we reworked last year’s statements. I would love any feedback on them as we try to anticipate what we will learn about students’ thinking and the ideas we can revisit as we progress through the unit. I thought it may be interesting to revisit these points after specific lessons that address these ideas.

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We were thinking each statement would elicit conversation around each of the following CCSS: 

Talking Point 1CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.NF.A.3.C
Express whole numbers as fractions, and recognize fractions that are equivalent to whole numbers. Examples: Express 3 in the form 3 = 3/1; recognize that 6/1 = 6; locate 4/4 and 1 at the same point of a number line diagram.

Talking Point 2CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.NF.A.2
Understand a fraction as a number on the number line; represent fractions on a number line diagram.

Talking Point 3CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.NF.A.2.B
Represent a fraction a/b on a number line diagram by marking off a lengths 1/b from 0. Recognize that the resulting interval has size a/b and that its endpoint locates the number a/b on the number line.

Talking Point 4: CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.NF.A.1
Understand a fraction 1/b as the quantity formed by 1 part when a whole is partitioned into b equal parts; understand a fraction a/b as the quantity formed by a parts of size 1/b.

Talking Point 5CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.NF.A.3.D
Compare two fractions with the same numerator or the same denominator by reasoning about their size. Recognize that comparisons are valid only when the two fractions refer to the same whole. Record the results of comparisons with the symbols >, =, or <, and justify the conclusions, e.g., by using a visual fraction model.

Talking Point 6CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.3.NF.A.3.C Express whole numbers as fractions, and recognize fractions that are equivalent to whole numbers. Examples: Express 3 in the form 3 = 3/1; recognize that 6/1 = 6; locate 4/4 and 1 at the same point of a number line diagram.

After the activity, we have a couple of ideas for the journal prompt:

  • Which talking point did your whole group agree with and why?
  • Which talking point did your whole group disagree with and why?
  • Which talking point were you most unsure about and why?
  • Which talking point do you know you are right about and why?
  • Could any of the talking points be true and false?

Would love your feedback! Wording was really hard and I am really still struggling with #4.

If you want to read more about Talking Points for different areas, you can check out these posts:

A Coordinate System

This standard in 5th grade always seemed like so much of a “telling lesson” for me.

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I never thought it was really addressed in the spirit of this standard in our curriculum, so I was typically like, “Here is what we call a coordinate grid. These are axes, x and y. We name the points like this…” and so on. It is not my usual approach so it always felt blah for me, for lack of a better word. I told them, they practiced plotting some points, and we played a little bit of Battleship (which was really fun).

Last week, I was planning with Leigh, a 5th grade teacher, and we spent a lot of time just talking about what we appreciate about the grid and how we can develop a sense of need in the students for it. Since they are in the middle of their 2D Geometry unit, we thought this could be the perfect place to plot points that connect to form polygons and look at patterns in the ordered pairs.

The questions we wanted to students to reason about through our intro lesson was:

  • Why a coordinate grid?
  • Why name a point with an ordered pair? 
  • Why is this helpful?
  • What structure do we see?

So, we created this Desmos activity. This was our thinking on the slides and the pausing points we have planned for discussion:

Slide 1: It is really hard to describe a location without guides or landmarks.

Slide 2: Note how difficult it is. Pause and show class the results.

Slide 3: It gets easier. Still need some measurement tool. Notice the intersection of axes.

Slide 4: Note it is a bit easier this time. Pause and show class results.

Slide 5: Much easier because of the grid. Still need a starting point. See it is the distance from axes.

Slide 6: Now it is much easier. Pause show class results. Would love to show all three choices side-by-side (don’t know if this is possible in Desmos).

~Pause~ Ask, “What names of things on the grid would make it easier to talk about the point’s location?” Give students vocabulary and ask them to revisit Slide 6 to describe the location to a partner.

Slide 7: Practice writing some ordered pairs.

Slide 8: Practice writing some ordered pairs.

Slide 9: Start to see some structure in the four ordered pairs of a rectangle.

We are ending with this exit ticket (with grid paper if they choose to use it):

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While we are not sure this is the best way to intro the grid, we thought it would generate some interesting conversation. Since we are teaching it tomorrow, there isn’t much time for feedback for change, but we would love your thoughts.

 

Rhombus? Diamond? Square? Rectangle?

It happens every year, in what seems like every grade level…students continually call a rhombus a diamond. Last year, when we heard 3rd graders saying just this, Christopher helped the 3rd grade teachers and me put the students’ thinking to the test with a Which One Doesn’t Belong he created.

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This year, at the beginning of the geometry unit, we heard the diamond-naming again along with some conversation about a rectangle having to have 2 long sides and 2 short sides. What better way to draw out these ideas for students to talk more about them than another Which One Doesn’t Belong? We changed the kite to a rectangle this time, hoping we could hear how they talked about it’s properties a bit more.

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Overwhelmingly, the class agreed D did not belong because it had “5 sides and 5 corners” and eventually got around to calling it a diamond, which in their words was “not a real shape.”

While we knew a lot of things could arise, our purpose was diamond versus rhombus conversation, so of course the students had other plans and went straight to the square versus rhombus.We wouldn’t expect anything different!:) For every statement someone had about why the square or rhombus did not belong, there was a counter-statement (hence the question marks in the thought bubbles).

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Jenn, the teacher, and I were really surprised at how much orientation of A and B mattered to the name they gave the square and rhombus but did not matter for the rectangle. That was just a rectangle, although one student did wonder if a square was also a rectangle (he heard that from his older sister). The students had so many interesting thoughts that we actually had to start a page with things they were wondering to revisit later! That distributive property one blew me away a bit!:)

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We then sent them back to journal because we wanted to hear how they were categorizing a square and rhombus. It ended up being really interesting just seeing them try to explain why they were different and change their mind because they just started turning their journals around!

Some stuck with them being different..

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Some thought they were different, but one could become the other…

 

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Some were wavering but the square was obviously the “right way.”

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Some argued they were the same…

So much great stuff for them to talk about from here! I left wondering where to go from here? In thinking about the math, is it an orientation of shapes conversation? or Is it a properties conversation? In thinking about the activity structure, would you pair them up and have them continue the conversation? Would you throw the rectangle into this conversation? Would you have some playing with some pattern blocks to manipulate? Would you pull out the geoboards? I am still thinking on this and cannot wait to meet and plan with the 3rd grade team!

However, before I left school today, I went back to the 3rd grade standards to read them more closely:Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 7.07.05 PM.png

and read the Geometry Learning Progressions, only to find this in 1st grade:

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Would love to hear any thoughts and ideas in the comments!

 

 

Subtraction in 2nd Grade

From my own experience teaching 5th grade and a lot of conversations with teachers in grades 1-4, subtraction always seems to be such an area of concern with students. After the introduction of subtraction as take-away, students tend to live in that land forever. This idea was spinning in my head the entire time I read Zak’s article in NCTM’s Teaching Children Mathematics. The article came at an ideal time as I had just planned and taught a subtraction lesson in two second grade classrooms.

As we were planning, the teachers and I discussed two reasons we think students struggle with relational thinking when dealing with subtraction:

  • The lack of variety in contexts we often give students to think about subtraction in different ways.
  • The lack of explicitness in connecting the ways students solve various subtraction contexts.

Based on the problems they were doing in their Investigations unit, we wanted to take the same numbers and create two different contexts for subtraction…one as a take-away context and one as a distance context and then have the students think about what made them subtract in one and what made them add in another. (After reading Zak’s article I want to try another structure where we keep the same context, but change the numbers to see if that impacts their solution process.)

First we did a notice/wonder on the following scenario:

Mike is saving money to buy a game. He already has some money saved.

After collecting the things they noticed and wondered (in black ink), I asked them what question they think we could ask and solve based on this story. They gave the question in red ink and then I asked them what information they would need to solve it and I put a red star next that information. I told them the game cost $22 and he had $8 saved and sent the on their way.

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Every single student added up, as we anticipated.

We shared some strategies and asked students how they were similar and different. We wanted to hear if students were using the number to solve or represent their thinking. We also wanted those students using the number to solve to see how they could also represent their thinking with equations.

Then we gave the students a second problem to solve: same numbers, different context:

Bobby had 22 toy cars in his book bag. He gave 8 of his toy cars to his friend Becky. How many cars did Bobby have left?  

They all took away the 8 except for one student. The variety of strategies was great and we were actually surprised to see a student solve it the same exact way he had used in the previous context.

The lone addition solution…

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We shared some strategies and asked them to compare the two problems. They noticed they were the same numbers and same answer but one student actually exclaimed, “How can they be the same answer when we added in one and subtracted in the other?!” What a great jumping off point for future lessons!

Time was up for this class period, but I made sure I stopped by to chat with the student who added in both because I was interested in his thinking. He said he knew that he had to subtract in that problem because it was taking away and he knew that you can add up to solve a subtraction problem. So, how does that happen? He has been in our school with all of these other students K-2, so how does he know this? What experience did he have, inside or outside of school, that allowed him to decide this was subtraction, know he can add up, and solve it? and then, Is there ever a context where he WOULD take away or has he learned this as to never have to take anything away?

After this lesson and Zak’s article, I am still reeling with my thoughts on subtraction. There has also been a lot of great conversation on Twitter about sequencing student work and I wonder how a set of student work like this could/would/should play in to students seeing subtraction more relationally? Lots of great stuff to think about!