Many teachers spend time in the first few days and weeks of school getting to know their students. They do this through games, role-playing, hands-on activities, and questionnaires. Some teachers use surveys, and others have class discussions. I like to use all of the above, mixing informal math assessments in with beginning to teach what is called “Math Talk”.
Math Talk is a collection of discourse-based tools that “allow students to engage more fully in mathematical thinking and reasoning.” Math Talk helps us achieve several goals that we have for our students: social; cognitive; and learning. The company is Math Solutions, and I’ve been reading and studying one of their books, “Classroom Discussions: Using Math Talk to Help Students Learn” (Chapin, O’Connor, and Anderson 2003) for two years now.
There are five principles of productive talk that are laid out in this book, and I focus on the first three with my class. I begin with the first, “Establish and Maintain a Respectful, Supportive Environment”, and we start by asking the question: “What kind of classroom environment do you want?” I post several large (and I mean, huge) Post-It notes on the whiteboard and wait. It always takes a little while for students to warm up, so I have half a dozen questions available to prime the pump. “What are your rights in the classroom?”, “How would you like your ideas to be discussed?”, “How do you want others to talk about what you say?”, “What are your responsibilities when you are presenting your ideas?”, “How should we handle disrespectful comments?” are a few examples.
I often wonder if this is the first time that they have been asked, in a serious way, and with a genuine sense that it matters, how they would like to be taught. All of us at the Marblehead Charter ask the students to reflect after each trimester’s Exhibition, but that is a reflection on that Exhibition, not on how students learn, how they are taught, or the suitability and efficacy of their learning environment. With some guidance, students themselves are excellent judges of their best learning environment; they vividly remember good lessons, and they readily recall their most enjoyable classtime experiences.
We spent an hour as a class, examining the idea of a “Respectful, Supportive Environment” recently, and several themes emerged: what is my classroom environment? what are my responsibilities as a student? what are my rights as a student? Here, with some editing for clarity, is what the students came up with:
THE CLASSROOM IS:
- FAIR: everybody does the same amount of work on group projects. everybody contributes equally; everybody participates equally.
- HANDS-ON: not just writing and reading, but trying stuff, handling things, doing experiments. positive: happy, complimentary, respectful, friendly.
- FLEXIBLE: we learn at our own rate, not too fast, not too slow.
- SAFE: no harsh comments; no negative comments; we should feel safe around teachers and other students, it should feel like I’m at home.
- CLEAN: room is picked up, not messy.
- SUPPORTIVE: genuinely helpful, not dismissive.
WHAT ARE MY RESPONSIBILITIES AS A STUDENT?
- I come prepared to class, physically and mentally.
- I speak clearly and understandably.
- I speak only when I have something to say.
- I try to explain what I mean.
- I help other people, give them encouragement, and explain the hard stuff.
- I let other people finish what they are saying.
- I am responsible for presenting my own ideas without insulting other people.
- I am responsible for knowing what I am talking about, and I share what I know.
- I appreciate the sincere contributions of others to my efforts and I am open to them.
- I trust my teachers and respect their lesson plans.
WHAT ARE MY RIGHTS IN THE CLASSROOM?
If I say something, nobody makes fun of it; No one should feel ashamed for stuff that’s not their fault, and I don’t judge people for stuff that’s not their fault. Discuss WHAT I say, not HOW I say it. I can say whatever I want, as long as it’s not negative and complies with school rules. I listen to other people before I judge them. I talk respectfully about other people’s ideas, even if I disagree with them. I consider other people’s ideas, and I think carefully about them. I have a right to my own opinion without being attacked for that opinion. I have the freedom to be myself; to be comfortable being myself. We are honest: not lying to each other. We don’t say things that are not true. I have the right to take notes and ask the teacher to clarify them. I have the right to contact the teacher about my homework, and to ask questions about my work, and I have the right to ask for help.
I will pass this out to the students, and we will review it together to see if it’s a faithful rendering of their thoughts. If so, then each will get a copy for their binder and I will make the several pieces as posters for the classroom. Then we can begin to discuss how this will apply to our discussions of math.