An Unexpected Lesson

Cynthia Hockman-Chupp

The third graders in Linda Friesen’s class at Gervais (Oregon) Elementary School learned an unexpected lesson during a recent session on area. Although Linda pulled name sticks for random teams, she ended up with one group made up of students who usually excel and another of students who often struggle.

In the lesson, students were asked to make a square with an area of 100 square units, using tiles. After a work period, the results were as follows…

The table of “high” students

An Unexpected Lesson

The table of “low” students

An Unexpected Lesson

During the discussion that followed, students directed two powerful questions to the “high” group:

Question: “Did you work together as a team?”

Answer: [sheepishly] “No.”

Question: “Did your process work for you?”

Answer: “No.”

Linda rejoiced in her class’s ensuing revelation: TEAMWORK MATTERS! A lot! This example gets to the heart of many Math Practice standards, illustrating that mathematics is not a solitary process; rather it is done with collaboration, conversation, and critique

Many minds make light work. (And a beautiful 10 x 10 array!)

At the beginning of each school year we work to establish a communities of learners that will eventually foster these kinds of conversations. Jo Boaler offers seven related messages for students in “Setting Up Positive Norms in Math Class.”

In the first weeks of school, these seven messages (and related videos linked in the pdf) can become catalysts for group discussion:

  1. Everyone can learn math to the highest levels
  2. Mistakes are valuable
  3. Questions are really important
  4. Math is about creativity and making sense
  5. Math is about connections and communicating
  6. Math class is about learning, not performing
  7. Depth is more important than speed

–Jo Boaler

Perhaps you’ll post these messages around your room, send them home to families, or ask students to reflect on them in their math notebooks. Or maybe you’ll find ways to call attention to a particular concept. After reading Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, I visited a fourth grade classroom and shared the author’s story of how another classroom called out “Synapse!” whenever a student made a mistake. I explained how a new brain connection, or synapse, grows each time we make a mathematical mistake. I returned a week later and asked a girl to demonstrate her strategy. Several hands went up. A boy’s single-worded response? “Synapse!” Students remembered and acknowledged the moment for what it was: a perfect opportunity for growing new brain connections!

Cynthia Hockman-Chupp is a curriculum specialist for MLC.