Building a Mathematical Community in the First Days of School
The Great Conversations Continue
We’ve been having some amazing discussions on Twitter and in our Open Up Resources 6–8 Math Curriculum Facebook Group, around both the curriculum and best teaching practices. With the start of school rapidly approaching, the topic of the first days of school seems to be coming up more and more. So I could think of no better time to share how I started my year with Open Up Resources 6–8 Math!
As math teachers, it’s important to start the year off with as much mathematical fun and problem solving as we can. I know there’s a ton of important info we need to go over at the beginning of the school year – like our syllabus, rules, procedures, and materials – but in my mind, finding the fun in math must be the focus of those first few days. Many students come to us with a severe dislike and fear of math. We can’t introduce them to our middle school classrooms by droning on and on about rules and procedures for 60 minutes on the first day of school. Finding the fun is essential.
The Importance of an Engaging First Day of School
It took me at least five or six years of teaching before I finally ditched my first-days-of-school PowerPoint in exchange for engaging activities that allowed my students to enjoy math – while I got to know them and their personalities better, too. We still had the rules, norms, and procedures chats, but rather than doing them in whole chunks, we let them occur organically after activities. For example, after a group work activity we would talk about what went well and what didn’t to start developing our classroom norms.
First impressions are vital, and I knew that if I could win my students over from the beginning it would go a long way in helping preserve our classroom culture when there was a day that wasn’t as awesome later in the year. I also knew if the kids went home and told their parents how fun math class was on the first day of school, I would have hopefully started winning them over to trying new ways of doing things during the year. In many ways, I started thinking of the first days of school as my most important teaching performance of the year.
Name Tents – with Feedback!
Sara VanDerWerf was the first person who inspired me to improve my back-to-school strategy, when I saw her name tents with feedback a couple years ago on Twitter. I was sure that writing to 100+ kids every day for 5 days was way more than I could handle, but as someone who really struggles learning names I finally decided that I would give it a try.
I fell in love! The premise is simple: on the first day of school kids use the outside of the paper as a typical name tent. However, on the inside there is a place for them to leave you feedback, ask you a question, or write to you every day for the first five days of school. There’s also a place for you to write back to them; this is the part that I was concerned about managing, but it ended up being no big deal, and I loved writing to the kids and getting to know them! Some of them asked me silly questions, other shared math fears, and some just told me how excited they were about the year. I took the time to comment on each one every day and I’m so glad I did! At the end of the year when we cleaned out our binders, I noticed how many kids had kept this correspondence with me and I knew it was well worth it. It gets bonus points for the name tent part…it was the fastest I have ever learned everyone’s name!
100 Numbers to Get Students Talking
I also got one of my favorite activities from Sara: 100 Numbers to Get Students Talking. The link does a great job describing the “how to” of the activity and provides all the needed materials. It’s truly an activity that every student can enjoy on day 1 of school, so it’s perfect for all learners. After the activity, we synthesized it as a class by talking about what went well in our groups and what didn’t work so well, and recording the responses on chart paper. These simple share outs are the beginnings of what will be our classroom norms by the end of the first week of school! Letting the students contribute to our classroom norms and rules allowed them to take ownership of them; as a result, it made it much easier for me as a teacher to hold them accountable for following them later in the year.
A Week of Inspirational Math
For the rest of the first week of school, I love the resources available on YouCubed called Week of Inspirational Math. Each day includes an activity with a lesson plan and a growth mindset video from Jo Boaler. The videos help kids understand how their brain works, and that although they may have had bad math experiences in the past, there is nothing stopping them from making this a mathematically awesome year. There are three weeks’ worth of activities there now – so that makes for 15 different activities you can choose from to make your first week of school perfect for you and your students. Some of my favorite activities included Four 4s, Number Visuals, and One Cut Geometry. Just like the 100 Numbers activity above, we took time after each activity to discuss what worked and what didn’t work in order to continue to add to our brainstorming list for norms to use later.
I always ended the first week of school with a non math activity before we spent time agreeing upon a final class norm list. I challenge the kids to build a paper airplane that they think will travel the farthest distance. After giving them a few minutes to work independently, they try out their airplanes within their group to test them and select the best to enter in the class contest. Once the best planes have been chosen, we head out to the hall to fly the planes and determine a winner. It’s so fun to watch the kids’ personalities emerge as they get excited about their group’s plane. After the contest, I show the kids this Simple Truths video about thinking outside the box, and it’s great watching their reactions as they see the plane in the video that won the contest!
Gearing Up For a Great Year
By the end of the week, we’ve enjoyed doing math together, gotten to know each other through the name tents, and established our classroom norms; we’re ready to start our year engaging in rich mathematical discussions! This sets us perfectly to start Lesson 1, Unit 1 of our first Open Up Resources Math Unit on Day 1 of the next week. We’ll begin changing our understanding of math, growth trajectory, and achievement once and for all.
Open Up Resources 6–8 Math Users Chime In
I’ve been amazed at all the wonderful first-days-of-school ideas that our Open Up Resources 6–8 Math Users have shared both in our Facebook Community and on Twitter. In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll hear from some of them about their favorite ways to get the year started! I would love the chance to share your great idea as well, so feel free to write it up in a paragraph and send it to me in an email!
More to come soon so we can all kick off a great year of learning and growth for your students!