Beginning the School Year with a Productive Disposition

There are many ways to start the school year in math class, some are better than others. Building a culture of risk-taking, mistake-embracing, hard-working, respectful students who view themselves as mathematicians is no small feat.

Why is this important? Because research says that the way student’s view themselves in math class can predict future attainment levels in math class. Also, developing a productive disposition towards mathematics is a key to any student’s success in school. So should we focus on developing classroom norms or beginning the year with math tasks? Tracy Zager, author of Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had, weighs in.

Whether we choose to start the year by jumping into a rich task on the first day, or by engaging in a reflective study about what it means to do mathematics, or by undertaking group challenges and conversations to develop norms for discourse and debate, we must be thoughtful about our students’ annual re-introduction to the discipline of mathematics.

So this year in order to re-introduce our students to math, we developed a collection of activities specifically chosen not only to engage students meaningfully in mathematics, but to also develop a productive disposition to mathematics as well. 

I have written about how we’ve begun the school year in my classroom in the past, but this year our school worked to codify these activities into a coherent four-year scope and sequence. The goals of the scope and sequence were to include the following:

  1. Icebreakers that not only allowed for introductions, but also provided space to discuss the value of group work.
  2. Mathematical activities designed to elicit exploration of productive group work behaviors.
  3. Engineering tasks that combined hands-on exploration with the continued cultivation of group work norms.

Here is what our four-year beginning of school sequence looks like:

first weeks image

This year was “Year 2” for us. So we began our first day of school with an icebreaker called “Group Count.” I learned about this activity at TMC in NYC from Eric Appleton. This could be a simple icebreaker, but the key is to spend time explicitly on the reflection of what strategies and behaviors make counting as a group more successful. These include: paying attention to each other, waiting patiently, planning as a group. Being able to explicitly discuss these vital group behaviors based on a concrete activity in the first minutes of being in class together was so valuable. We followed this up with an activity called “Figure Me Out.” Once each student filled out their sheets, they balled them up, and had a snowball fight. Students then had to pick up the nearest sheet of paper and use the information on the sheet to figure out which classmate it belonged to.

The following day, we began the Broken Circles activity from the book, Designing Groupwork. You can also read about how Sarah Carter implements this activity in her class. Broken Circles has many constraints that are vital to its implementation. Explicitly reviewing these constraints was very important for our students prior to beginning the activity. Taking the time to allow students the ability to process these constraints helped to make the implementation of the activity more successful in out class.

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Directions for Broken Circles (and yes, that’s Comic Sans…get over it!)

Here’s what it looked like in our class:

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The next period we had students try to complete my childhood puzzles (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Goosebumps). Unbeknownst to them, half of each puzzle was mixed up into the other puzzle’s box. Students were told to follow the same rules as in Broken Circles (i.e. no talking, gesturing, taking or grabbing).

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Following Broken Circles was this year’s engineering task, the Paper Table Challenge. After explicitly discussing positive group work behaviors during the previous first days of school, students were prepared to work together on this challenge. Using vocabulary from previous days students were able to identify what they would need to do to work together in order to successfully construct a table out of newspaper that would hold a math textbook (we all know how heavy those are!) for 20 seconds.

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Not only did all of the groups design and build tables that held a math textbook for 20 seconds, they built tables that could hold 6 math textbooks!!!

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Finally, during the #MTBoS (MathTwitterBlogoSphere) Sunday Funday blogging initiative, fearlessly led by Julie Reulbach, I noticed a lot of teachers loved using Sara van Der Werf’s 100 Numbers to Get Students Talking task. So, not only did I include it in our four-year sequence (during “Year 1”), but I had to try it this year! #sorrynotsorry

Boy, was it worth it! Never before has a task been able to so concretely, explicitly, and visually represent what group work in math class looks like. By following Sara’s carefully developed task instructions, my students with varying disabilities (including autism spectrum disorder and language-based disabilities) were able to describe the abstract concept of what group work in math class looks like, with little to no prompting.

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I’m excited to try out the “Year 3” activities next year. Also if you have a more mathematical and explicitly group work centered icebreaker for “Year 4” than “Group Beat” leave it for us in the comments!

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