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Test Prep without Pain

Math test prep for spring standardized testing is always a bit daunting. Teachers face the same dilemma every year:

  1. Trust that we’ve taught everything we need to teach and go in with the confidence that students can apply it….
  2. Panic about things such as spiral review, cram in one last topic/unit, review vocabulary words and teach best test taking tips…

Both of those options are perfectly okay, but both make teachers and students feel a bit uncomfortable.  Without teaching any test prep, we worry that students won’t be able to “figure out” questions. Students feel nervous not knowing what to expect and want to feel confident going in. But too much test prep stresses out the teacher and the students, putting tons of pressure on them as they go into a testing situation.

I propose some test prep (for math anyway) without the pain of these feelings.  I came up with Reasoning Puzzles when we first began teaching with the Common Core State Standards.  As I looked at our state test, last year I realized the rigor has most definitely increased, especially the ability for our students to take apart questions and look for multiple solutions and answers.

Instead of flashing up multiple choice questions, students participate in small group discussion about “puzzles”and statements about those puzzles. Allowing them to talk over these puzzles, and make their mathematical thinking visible to each other, they become much more confident.  Testing truly is just trying to make sense of a problem, and looking for small nuances in how the question is asked, combined with calculations of some sort. This sort of test prep is fun, builds confidence in your students, and if done all year can create very powerful mathematicians.

I used them with my own third graders for years, and now with my intervention students.  I received a tweet from a woman named Lisa who took it even a step further and had her students write their own statements. What a great way to extend the learning!

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Reasoning Puzzles give students a chance to think critically and to use the standards for mathematical practice effectively.  Feel free to check out the free sample to try them yourself if you’d like.

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An Approach that Works for Struggling Learners EVERY Time

I have been reading about the Concrete-Representational-Abstract Sequence of Instruction for some time now, especially since I began working with our most struggling math students at our school.

I’m hooked and am a firm believer in this approach!

I know you know that moment… where you find students looking at you with the deer in headlights look.  In my intervention groups, I see it several times in 30 minutes! I was desperately searching for more ways to make math meaningful for them when I discovered this approach. And, I will tell you, it works EVERY time. I mean, EVERY SINGLE TIME. There has not been one single concept that I haven’t been able to master with a child when I used this approach.

If you don’t have time to read the article, the approach is summed up quite simply in three steps:

  1. When a student is introduced to a new concept or something unfamiliar, you allow the use of tools. (Concrete)
  2. When the student can perform the task, they move on to representing the concept with drawings or pictures. (Representational)
  3. When the student can master the task with a drawing or a picture they move to using only numbers and symbols. (Abstract)

    * Note it is important to keep all three of these ways visible to promote strong connections and deep conceptual understanding.

I realized that this could be even MORE powerful when students could self assess where they are in this approach. I made this poster with them and we refer to it constantly.

Concrete-Representational-Abstract-Approach-Instruction

They are constantly checking “where their brains are at” when they are struggling through a problem.  When the numbers and symbols don’t make sense, they actually back themselves up to drawings. If that still doesn’t make sense they back up and use concrete tools.

It has been simply amazing, and you must try it!

2

Small Steps for Differentiation: Same Task – Different Entry Points

When thinking of differentiation in the classroom, it is easy to fall into the trap of putting pressure on ourselves to perfectly level activities for every student. My mind goes to having a rotated set of groups and centers all perfectly ready to go. In this scenario you never run out of time, every student is exactly where they need to be, AND they are accountable, focused and staying on task the entire time.

YEAH RIGHT!

Don’t get me wrong, math workshops are a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t always work as smoothly as we’d like. It is okay to differentiate in small ways, taking small steps to be sure that we are meeting the needs of all children without going crazy ourselves.

This past summer I was lucky enough to read work by Timothy Kanold, and then I was able to work with him in a workshop as well. He proposes that instead of coming up with different activities for every student, we have the same task, but with different entry points. So what does this look like exactly?

Here is an example for a second grade classroom where the learning target would be “I can count money up to a specific amount.”(CCSS 2.MD.C.8):

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Task: How many ways can you build 58 cents? Build it and record it.

All of the students in this group are given the same task, but usually all of the students have different levels of knowledge surrounding this task. So instead of coming up with 25 different activities you have only one.  As the activity begins and students begin to work, two things will happen which we all can predict every time. Some students will struggle, and others will fly.  This is when you strategically give certain students more.

For the students who struggle in this case you would lay down another task next to it, where the number is more accessible, and you may also consider telling them the value of all of the coins.

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Instead of 58 cents, the students who struggle are working with a more accessible number, side by side with the other students.

In this case for the students that are excelling there are many options: ask them to find the solution if you eliminate one of the types of coins, ask them to show their thinking algebraically using a table, give a different amount and have them predict the number of solutions they may find before solving, or ask them to write a story in which you may need to come up with 58 cents worth of change.

The main thing is that you have to truly be walking your room, listening to your students and conferring with them as they solve. The BEST part of this method, is students are working together and hearing one another’s thinking, elevating the learning for all in the room.

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Small Steps for Differentiation: Tier It!

I’m still searching for ways to differentiate in small ways that take just a second or two. An activity that is tiered is something that is leveled differently. A true tiered activity means that there are two (or sometimes more) options that account for a different level of thinking.  Not everything can be tiered, but some basic math skills can be tiered quite easily. Here is an example.

I saw this post on Pinterest the other day for a primary classroom. So easy and so creative!

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This is an awesome activity for students that are just starting out with numbers and subtilizing.  But what about that small group of kids that the K-1 teacher doesn’t have time to differentiate for? Well, I think that the answer is all about having the right materials, in this case more advanced dominoes. I pulled this together for my kindergartener at home and we had a blast doing it.  (Hello 20 minutes of math play!)

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I think if we systematically think about what the next “level” of some of those basic math skills are, we can slowly incorporate the correct materials into our centers, our assignments and our games. In this way we ensure all students are making growth!

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Math is a Learning Subject: More Small Steps for Differentiation

My favorite thing about math is that is a messy thinking subject. It is a learning subject. It should be messy and full of questions. We need to teach kids that it can be glorious when it suddenly is no longer messy and the patterns and the discoveries are right in front of our faces!

We have to model this for students, and more importantly we need to give them opportunities to make math a learning subject. So often we want to give all the answers, and tell them all the patterns, and show them how magical it is, that they lose their passion for discovering math at an early age. They begin thinking that math is a performance subject…teacher asks the question, student gives the answer…25 times in a row…on a worksheet.

Instead we need to give students meaningful explorations that can often run in the background of the school day.  These can often be very simple, and they really allow for differentiation. Some students will take these explorations much further than others.

Here is a third grade example:

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The keys to making this work are:

  1. Give enough time for the exploration. This one will be 2 weeks.
  2. DO NOT, and I really mean this, DO NOT give them the answers. (This is very difficult, I know.)
  3. Tell them to work with each other! Isn’t that how we learn best? The second we want to know something we email, text or call someone. Let them teach each other.
  4. Make them research it, prove it and let them feel some confusion. This teaches perseverance and also that math is truly a learning subject. Bring in iPads, computers or have them look it up at home. (Hint: Use school tube when searching! Great resource!)
  5. Be sure that they understand that the most important part is not the answer they give you, but rather the method they use to solve it and WHY IT WORKS. That is the number one most important thing that they can get out of this inquiry activity.

Will all of the students be able to do this? Possibly…their level of understanding will vary from student to student. But in the end, when you bring them all together let the students do the talking. They will get there, if not now…they will have some prior knowledge for 4th grade.

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Differentiate in Small Steps: Give Them Two Problems

Differentiation is difficult. There is no doubt about it. I’ve been on a mission to find small ways to differentiate without stressing myself out, and without stressing out the teachers I work with.

I often found myself realizing that I was giving one math problem to the whole class when I’d look at my gifted kids faces. You know that look on their face? That boredom in their eyes look…where they’d rather be someplace else than sit and do another problem that they already know how to do. That is what inspired my idea of just putting two problems up, a meets the target (happy) problem and an exceeds the target (stressful) problem. I always explain to the students that if you are able to complete the happy problem correctly, you are meeting the target. It is even more impressive if you can do the stressful problem, but it’s not necessary.

Here is an example. Today in a second grade classroom the learning target was adding 2 digit numbers mentally (without regrouping).  I put up two problems, the happy one was a check for me to see who had it.  (They worked in their notebooks but it’s also great to use dry erase boards.)  The stressful problem is the one that students who need to stretch their thinking just a bit might try after doing the happy problem.

Using two faces makes it both visual and fun for students.  Cut them out and reuse them over and over!

Using two faces makes it both visual and fun for students. Cut them out and reuse them over and over!

I keep those little face headings handy, they go up on dry erase boards, chalkboards, and easels…wherever we are doing math.  If I forget to put two problems, the students definitely remind me. They love to see the stressful problem face, especially the first time when I draw it in front of them.  You can use this method during quick checks, problem solving, mini lessons, practice, mental math…the possibilities are limitless.  This is something that can be done quickly, and doesn’t require hours and hours of work.

 

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Student Talk Leads to Deeper Thinking

I witnessed this cool thing the other day, the thing that I keep on blogging about because I keep on seeing it over and over. I was in a second grade classroom where students were adding two digit numbers.  The lesson was to add the ones first, then the tens by decomposing numbers. The well meaning adult in the room (me) kept on teaching it according to the lesson.  Students were making mistakes and errors like crazy.  Then, I gave them the freedom to try whatever way they pleased.

I was astounded by their thinking, they came up to share one by one with different strategies that made WAY more sense to each other than what I was preaching. It was pretty amazing to see what they were coming up with. Not only did their ways make sense, but they were also accurate. Another reminder that I need to SHUT UP!

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This student made tens, and then added the ones and tens in the order that made sense to him.

 

So let them talk! The deep thinking and learning that will come from it will be amazing.