The first six weeks of school are a tender time. Everyone is another year older and anxiously wondering what the next grade will bring. There are new faces to learn and routines to remember. We are still shaking off the sleepiness of summer.
It is now the fourth full week of school and October. Finally – fall! A key to settling into this unusual year, a year where we are trying to regain so much that was lost over the last eighteen months and to determine a different version of normal, has been moving slowly.
For one thing, the beginning of the year always has a lot of disruptions like orientations, picture days, early autumn holidays, and Back to School nights. For another, since the pandemic is ongoing, there are even more disruptions. We continue to test the community weekly and are doing standardized testing now to gather more data about where students are after a year and a half of virtual and hybrid learning. We have yet to return to large group traditions such as assemblies, plays and concerts. We are all wary of being suddenly informed that we need quarantine or that we ourselves have tested positive. The extra weight is still heavy.
In my math class we have not even cracked open our textbook. Instead I am trying to remember how to build the ideal community of math thinkers. Last year’s class started online. We couldn’t use manipulatives and had to avoid sharing materials. They rarely left their seats to limit the pool of close contacts. The rules are a bit looser now. What do I want to bring back? What do I want to re-do completely?
I pretty much ran back to Jo Boaler’s YouCubed work. I knew I wanted students to feel that wherever they were in their math learning was fine. I would meet them where they are, whether that was leaps ahead or a few steps behind. We have been watching the wonderful videos that challenge misconceptions about math learning. We talk about the way messages like “Our brains grow and change”, “Mistakes are powerful”, and “Speed is not important” question how we typically think about learning math. The goal is to lay the foundation for a collective growth mindset and create an environment where each of them believes they can succeed.
Our initial explorations have been slow and deep. We began with the area unit in the Grade 6 book of Mindset Mathematics. Starting with geometry might feel unusual, but spatial reasoning is sometimes where students unexpectedly shine. Meanwhile, they are practicing lots of computational skills and warming up processes for multiplying, adding, subtracting, and thinking algebraically.
I also really like the puzzles at Transum. There are hundreds of math problems presented as colorful fun interactives. The Overloaded Fraction puzzles started out as a warm-up, but when we got stumped it became a whole class challenge.
I let them linger on these problems because there was excellent thinking going on that I didn’t want to interrupt. Plus, they were simplifying fractions, finding greatest common factors, and applying divisibility rules – all things we needed to cover anyways! Authentic learning tasks energize a classroom and what seems like a side track can turn out to be a highway.
This week we will begin our first real unit, complete with comprehensive instruction on taking Cornell Notes. In the back of my mind, I will keep the maxim “Sometimes you have to go slow if you want to go far”. I know we will get where we need to be. Eventually.