Conversations in Math Class

“That was cool. And hard.”

“It’s difficult to come up with math questions.”

“I realized that I had got it wrong and then I figured out that I understood it wrong and then I fixed it”.

“Can we do that in class again?”

… these were just a few of the comments that I received after trying a new vocabulary-oriented activity in class this week.

At a recent whole-school professional development session, our staff spent the day thinking about the non-native English speakers in our classrooms. Working in an international school, I have received quite a bit of professional development geared toward subject literacy, and I agree with the statement that the kind of teaching that benefits our language-learners is good teaching for all our students. The in-service day was a good reminder to focus more on vocabulary in math class, which I have always done (see this post on digital glossaries), but think I could make more effective.

After our department spent some time playing with different routines and activities for integrating vocabulary learning into our lessons, we decided to try one called Student-Student questions. It required some adaptation to math class, but I have used it twice now and have a bit of a crush on this new routine, for a couple of reasons:

1) The students do all the work.

2) Students like answering their own questions more than they like answering my questions (and obviously more than they like answering textbook questions). Dan Meyer used this as motivation in introducing a next-level desmos activity, referring to the importance of social and creative elements in the classroom.

3) There are individual, small group, and whole-group phases of the activity

4) It is an effective formative assessment, where I can walk away with a record of student conversations (Ontario teachers you might like this!)

5) Students get to move around the room a bit.

Here is a rundown of how Student-Student Questions works in my class:

  1. As a class, we brainstorm unit vocabulary and I record it on the board.
  2. Each student takes a half sheet of paper and writes their name on it. They are now student A. I collect all the papers and redistribute them.
  3. Student B receives a paper from Student A at random, and I give the instruction to write a question on the paper. What kind of question? That depends on where students are in their learning. It could be a definition, a compare/contrast, or even a math problem. If it is a math problem, it should be solvable by the writer. They could even ask a conceptual question where they need clarification. Anything goes, as long as it uses unit vocabulary and is math-oriented. They require time for this task, as they like to think of good questions. Student B writes their name next to the question.
  4. Student B hands the paper back to Student A, who now works to answer the question. I put a time limit on this, as not all students will fully (or correctly) answer the questions.
  5. Student A returns the answer to Student B. I arrange the class in groups of 3, and in small groups students discuss the Question and Answer of each participant. They must give written feedback on the response, in a different color. I give plenty of time for these discussions, as students often need to work through solutions or discuss conceptual understanding in detail in order to give meaningful feedback. (for “correct answers” there are still plenty of feedback options, including comments on strategy or working out, etc.) This is a good time to circulate and offer clarification where necessary.
  6. Student B returns the paper to Student A with the written feedback. Once everyone has returned to their seats and had a chance to read the feedback, we have a short whole-group session where students can share insights, aha moments, etc.

I’ve used the routine in grade 10 and grade 8, and found it equally effective in both classes. I was surprised at how engaged the students were, but I shouldn’t have been (see social and creative comments above). I am impressed at how valuable the task is as a formative assessment, helping me identify misconceptions or areas needing re-teaching. And for any teachers looking for evidence of student conversations, this is perfect!

8 Replies to “Conversations in Math Class”

  1. I really like that idea Ruth I’m going to try it in my dance class when we are critiquing pieces. I like the idea of the pieces of paper and making the process a little more objective. Do you collect all the pieces of paper after and keep them as a record? @dvignes

    • Hi @kudegbunam – I did collect the pieces of paper the first time, as it gave me a good amount of insight into their understanding. The second time I didn’t collect them, as I felt more involved in the process as it happened. If you need a record of the conversations I would definitely keep them! Also I am happy that you can immediately adapt this to dance class – it’s a good activity for any subject!

  2. @rutheichholtz So great to read your fantastic post! I know you are reporting on mathematics, but it is a language and I can see myself adapting your methodology for my FSL class. What a creative way to capture student conversations. Vielen Dank aus Toronto!

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