Implementing Best Practices for Math Instruction
In the past I have utilized a workshop approach to teaching math; however, this year my team has worked together to incorporate many other strategies and frameworks, including a workshop approach, to best meet the needs of our students. It requires that we all work together closely, and it also means that we take responsibility for our entire grade level. I really enjoy working with the other 5th grade teachers to plan, assess, and reflect on daily and weekly lessons, and I am confident it has made me a better teacher. From small group instruction and flexible grouping to shared and common assessments, I'd like to share what my team is doing this year.
Photo: Students take math outside using tools to practice adding decimals.
What Are Best Math Practices?
So often we hear "best practices" and we think about literacy practices. And really, best practices ARE best practices regardless of subject area, socioeconomic status, or grade level. However, I thought it was interesting to research what exactly are considered best math practices. One of my favorite best practices lists comes from Beaverton School District in Oregon. They introduce their list of 14 best practices this way:
Recognizing that the teacher is the most important factor in student achievement, teachers need to know and understand the Mathematics they will be teaching as well as participate in on-going professional development to enhance knowledge of content and pedagogy. To incorporate the following best practices effectively, teachers need to routinely reflect and collaborate on instructional practices, student progress, and know and understand the Mathematics they will be teaching at a deep enough level to be able to explain and apply his/her understanding in a variety of formats.
I encourage you to use the link above to read the list!
Three Best Practices Share
I'd like to share our grade level experiences incorporating three of the best practices from the list in the link above. By no means do I believe we are implementing all possible best practices, nor do I have the time and space to share everything we are doing well. But I would like to focus on how we are managing flexible grouping, assessment, and collaboration through snapshots from previous units.
Assess to inform instruction and summarize learning
My grade level team members all work together to help improve instruction for our students. This includes giving ourselves the flexibility of moving from one classroom to another. The key for us is having pre-tests that are specific enough that the information they cover can be taught and measured within three weeks (or fewer). Beyond that, we also create shared assessments on a weekly basis to determine what has been retained or needs to be revisited. With our first round of flexible grouping, the average test scores went from 40% on the pre-test to 95% on the post-test in a three week period!
Snapshot from a recent fraction unit . . .
In a recent unit involving fractions, we created a pre-test on specific skills we wanted to address in the three week period. After grading the pre-tests, our team met to discuss what resources we had and which teacher would best work with the flexible groups being created. Because I had been in 3rd grade the previous year, I had the resources and recent experience to help students who needed extra support. But even though I did not work with students who already demonstrated mastery, I was able to share several resources to help my teammate who did.
After our groups were created, we dedicated ourselves to meeting each day during our lunch period (outside of the teacher's lounge for confidentiality). During this time, we discussed whether to move students from one room to another, and generally got to know our students better as a whole. Having the time to bounce ideas around, seek help for individual students, or share instructional practices really assisted. It was also helpful to have weekly formative assessment check-ups to see what needed to be revisited or celebrated.
Provide differentiated classroom instruction using a variety of instructional methods and interventions
In previous years I spent the bulk of my time teaching whole group (I'm not proud), mainly teaching small group when using a workshop model. After a math presenter I greatly admire, Rachel McAnallen, caused me to seriously question a framework that only uses small group discussion on a daily basis, I now use whatever method will best meet the needs of my students.
Snapshot from our fraction unit . . .
With some skills, inquiry-based projects and tasks might work best. For instance, we might start our math lesson for the day with a mini-lesson, move on to group work, and then meet all together to discuss our findings, questions, and learning — both out loud and in writing. Resources such as Math Exemplars, Cartoon Corner, or hands-on manipulatives assist with this goal. On other days, students might rotate through different stations, working with me, a parent, and independently. Groups are created based on the most recent classroom assessment and are grade-free to allow students to get help without the fear of grades. When a skill is new and challenging, it might be best to teach using a whole group method. It just all depends! Whether students are heading outside to estimate the height of a tree or working with me in a small group, they seem to benefit from the flexibility, from not being locked into one mode of instruction each day.
Establish school/family/community partnerships
On an almost daily basis we have access to parent help. If that's not the case at your school, perhaps a teacher aide could be assigned to work with you in the classroom regularly. It makes a difference. It has also made a huge difference being able to collaborate closely with my grade-level partners. We share resources and offer each other support and guidance — all for the benefit of the students.
Snapshot from our fraction unit . . .
With the help of a very knowledgeable teacher assistant and another parent, we were able to break students up into groups of five or six and work with each group alone for one full hour. You can only imagine how successful both students and teachers felt after the hour was up. On average, we were able to do this once a week.
But what if a student still needed additional help after the hour was up? In our grade level, we have thirty minutes built into our schedule for RTI purposes. During this time we have been instructed to not teach any new content. This became a perfect time to provide an additional thirty minutes for support in math, when needed. Add that to our daily hour block, and some students were able to get an hour and a half of math instruction and support daily. While one teacher focused on math skills and support, another teacher could work with a group of students on reading comprehension skills, and yet another teacher could work on brain puzzles and challenges. This has also been an ideal way to catch up students who have been absent.
Here is our daily schedule, if you are interested in building in time for additional math assistance:
8:15–8:35 Warm-up, morning routine
8:35–10:35 Literacy block
12:30–12:40 Spelling or read-aloud
12:40–1:40 Science/social studies
1:40–2:25 Special areas
2:30–3:00 RTI/Extra support in math and reading
3:00–3:05 Pack up
Time to Share Your Best Math Practices
What math practices have impacted your students the most? Please share! Our team is still growing and learning, and new ideas are always appreciated.