Number Talks – Ideas

Number talks have probably been my favorite thing about the past few weeks of teaching. I can’t believe it took me this long to start doing them. I’ve been excited about how all students — even my lowest-skilled — have embraced them, and volunteer ideas and strategies. I’ve been excited about how my students embrace solving 21 times 18 in 10 different ways. I’ve been excited about seeing students take risks sharing new — and sometimes incorrect — strategies, without shame.

But I’m hitting a roadblock.

What I think is happening in my average student’s brain during a number talk is something like this:

Hmm. That doesn’t look too hard. Umm. Oh, I’ll try this! Cool I have an answer. I’m gonna take a break. (pause, then I ask for answers) Oh I want to share my answer! (raises hand) (doesn’t get called on right away) Urghh Mr. Kane call on meeeeee! I’m bored. (I ask for more answers) Oh me me me! (I call on them, they explain their method) Math class is awesome! I love sharing my ideas. I wonder what Jonathan said about me on Twitter. Is he looking at me funny right now?

Basically, students enjoy finding a method to solve a pretty simple problem. However, they’re not engaging with each other’s ideas and learning from them to the degree that is possible. I’m kindof in a pickle here. Students really enjoy number talks, and there is a lot of good engagement for the sake of engagement. I don’t want to start forcing students to do this type of thinking if I can send the message that their classmates’ ideas are important without becoming punitive.

My idea is to have students keep a weekly journal of number talks. Number talks are structured the same way as now, but at the end of each number talk students have 1-2 minutes to write the strategy they liked best and why (if they liked their own best they have to explain why). Then, at the end of the week, they get 3 extra minutes to write one thing they learned from number talks that week.

These ideas are 90% stolen from Fawn Nguyen, who I should have listened to better when I first started number talks. I don’t think I will implement this in the few weeks I have left this year, but I’m excited about it for next year. The other part that will make this more powerful is a weekly theme for number talks — either dot patterns, or multiplication, or fractions, or decimals, or estimation tasks, or rounding tasks, or “does this answer make sense?” I think this will give some meaning to writing what they are learning from number talks — making it more meaningful to them, and giving them meaningful mathematics to make sense of.

Other thing I’m going to add is popsicle sticks for cold calling. I do plenty of cold-calling in class, but I’d love to be more clear with when I want it to be random because everyone has something meaningful to contribute (number talks) vs when I’m cold-calling to see if students are with me. This is especially hard on the days when two-thirds of the class is raising a hand to contribute — it’s hard to meaningfully cold-call when most of the class wants to participate, but popsicle sticks make that clear.

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