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December 6, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 4
Step By Step

5 Steps to … Spark Joy in Math This Year

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After months of pandemic-related hardships and huge disruptions to education, I feel an extra responsibility this year to creatively re-engage my students in math. This is especially important because a crucial support structure was lost during remote instruction. When they are physically in the classroom, my students work collaboratively to solve problems, share solution strategies, and make connections between those strategies. They build and exist in a community in which they support one another and learn and grow together. During remote learning, the use of breakout rooms for small group work helped, but it was often a poor substitute for in-person connections. As we work to bring students back to in-person learning, here are five steps to help them reconnect with the joy and creativity of problem solving.

1. Center Student-Led Learning

Create space for cognitively guided instruction, a student-led approach in which children build on their own understanding of math and have opportunities to solve problems in ways that make sense to them. Afterwards, they share their thinking with the class. Using student work as a launch pad for discussions helps the entire community grow as students make connections between the strategies and see multiple entry points. It also helps students develop a positive mathematical identity as they see that their math ideas have value.

2. Bring the Noise

The quiet math class should be a thing of the past. Whether students work independently, with a partner, or with a group to solve a problem, they should explain their solution strategy, ask questions of each other, critique each other's reasoning, and defend their thinking. Sometimes this can be done through a turn and talk; other times, I ask students to write their work on the board so we can make connections. I facilitate the discussion, asking questions like, "Pharaoh added to solve, but Tiffany subtracted. Why do both strategies work?" Students learn that their thinking drives these discussions, not just getting the right answer. They also learn that there are multiple methods for solving problems, which reduces stress-related barriers.

3. Pay Attention to Literacy

My 2nd grade students are still developing their reading skills. That means students must get whatever extra support they need to fully access other subjects that are reading dependent, including math. I'll take time to read directions aloud as needed and make sure students understand the meaning of academic vocabulary that may be hard to decode on paper, like exchangedigit, and decompose.

4. Use Art

Integrating art into lessons is a great way to engage children and build knowledge in multiple content areas. For example, we'll study the colorful painting "The Reception" by artist Jonathan Green, who depicts Gullah culture. Gullah are descendants of enslaved Africans, many of whom settled around the Carolinas in the 19th century. I choose this painting because it has an accessible context (people at a wedding reception) and reflects diversity, both with the artist himself and in the images presented, so that all students can see themselves represented. The painting also lends itself to many addition and subtraction situations (such as: How many more people are sitting than standing? How many more adults than children? How many people at the reception in all?). My students can solve word problems, using Green's painting for context.

5. Have Fun with Instructional Routines

Instructional routines are another way to encourage active learning and deeper engagement. For example, students love "Which One Doesn't Belong?" in which they study four numbers or images and find a category in which three of the items belong, but the fourth does not. There is no right answer; students simply have to share the reasoning for their choice. Or, in "Take a Stand," I hang signs around the room with labels that say things like "Strongly Agree," "Strongly Disagree," "Undecided," or "Greater than 100" and "Less than 100." Then I present a problem and invite my students to stand beside the sign that best describes their thinking. I call on each group to share their reasons for why they choose that sign. Anyone who changes their mind during the discussion can join a different group. As a class, we reflect on the students' takeaways.
By using methods like the ones I've described, we can deliver what math students need—joy, and rich learning experiences that lay a foundation for success in subsequent grades.

Lisa Watts-Lawton is a 2nd grade teacher at Gardner Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. She is a senior curriculum developer for Great Minds, the publisher of Eureka Math.

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