Math Collaboration and Differentiation While Distance Learning

Have I mentioned I am also a math teacher?  Well, a 6th grade math teacher.  Seriously.  I only like teaching 6th grade math.  The main reason is that 6th grade math is the math we use every day – equivalent fractions for cooking and percentages for taxes, area to measure homes and basic algebra to figure out party supply amounts.  They leave my class with the ability to buy carpet and tip appropriately.  That’s life. 

People are surprised when I say I teach both middle school math AND humanities.  They either think I am a unicorn or I REALLY believe in interdisciplinary education.  The truth is that since I started off as an elementary grade teacher, I have always taught math, language arts, and social studies.  And I am really glad that so far I haven’t had to choose a favorite. 

Distance learning has offered some distinct challenges to my math teaching, but also some opportunities.  I find that with the right technological tools and creative planning I can maintain important pedagogical practices while serving individual student needs better.  There are many adaptations I have made that I hope to take back to the classroom. Now that we are all learning safely at home, I have been relying on the breakout room feature of our video conferencing platform to both improve the level of personalization I offer as part of our school mission and to continue the collaborative routines we built while on campus.

Our middle school math program is not tracked; we have heterogenous, mixed ability classrooms.  Part of our school mission is to also provide more personalized learning.  Differentiation is incredibly important because while a variety of learners are grouped together, no one should feel either held back or overwhelmed.  Having previously taught “advanced” or “conceptual” math classes, I get the desire to create homogenous classes.  It is easier to serve students who have the same background knowledge, learning styles, and needs.  There is a ton of evidence that this is rarely done equitably.  Marginalized populations are always underrepresented. It is also not necessarily the best model if the goal is a math community with a growth mindset.  I really want to make our current mixed groupings work, even though differentiation becomes more challenging with a greater range of learners. I see how different thinkers can inspire one another and how a lack of permanent placement leaves room for the exponential growth that can happen during a middle school year.  

It is now easier to separate children into groups based on their understanding of a concept and to change those groupings frequently. Because the space is virtual, they pay less attention to who is where.  There aren’t any tables or bodies to move when I want to bring the class back together or regroup them for a different activity. My hope is that things feel fluid and supportive of a growth mindset.  It is also easier to deliver personalized work to each child, again because they can’t pay attention to what the next person is working on.  Hyperdocs have been an essential tool. The decrease in peer pressure is really working out for students who need a little more time.  They finally have a chance to celebrate their growth without comparing themselves to others. 

 As a progressive educator, I typically don’t love to stand in front of the class and do direct instruction. I recognize that some children prefer it. PowerPoint presentations and modeled problems are definitely in the mix, but children are seated at table groups, I keep it short, and I try to move around so there is no front of the room.   I prefer to be the “guide on the side” while students collaborate on deep problems, providing support or enrichment as needed.  I try to leave space for students to discover mathematical principles and to become as interested in the “why” as they are the “how” of a procedure.  I am grateful that this type of collaboration is still possible in the virtual world using the breakout rooms.  My kids are craving purposeful interactions with their classmates.  We all win if their socializing leads to greater mathematical understanding. 

Here are some of my favorite small group activity resources:

Open Middle

Open Middle problems are great for encouraging conversation and debate in a math classroom.  They remind me of those awesome task boards by Marcy Cook.  I usually put these at the end of a lesson problem set for my early finishers or send kids who already know the concept I am teaching into a breakout room to solve them together.  Open Middle problems are great for explaining to parents the difference between conceptual and procedural understanding of math topics they may think their child is finished learning. 

3 ACT Math

The 3 Act Math format was developed by Dan Meyer.  I usually do Act 1 as a whole group, then send them into the breakout rooms for Act 2, then come back together to share ideas and do the big reveal of Act 3.   I love that these puzzles always relate to real life situations.  A super fun one compared the beats per minute of popular hip hop songs from different regions.  Several students were taking a digital music class and the process of using ratios to figure out which beats were fastest or slowest was a terrific connection.

MashUp Math

MashUp Math is a great resource for really well-designed explanatory videos, but also has an expansive offering of visual puzzles.  I used these puzzles as a primer for our algebra basics unit.  There were students who already knew how to factor and use the distributive property and children who ducked put their heads down at the sight of a variable.  These puzzles leveled the playing field and gave everyone the chance to have some reasoning fun with gummy bears and game consoles.  For introductory students, the focus was on where to start and how to use inverse operations to solve for unknown quantities.  For accelerated students, the challenge was efficiently explaining their automatic thinking, both verbally and in writing. They could also practice turning the pictures into expressions and equations with variables or making their own puzzles. 

How are you managing differentiation and fostering meaningful collaboration during distance learning?  What resources do you love? Post in the comments!

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