Friday, January 28, 2011

What Learning Looks Like in My Classroom

I do very little talking-in-front-of-class. It's a habit I have retained from my first year of teaching, when I couldn't manage to get a class to be quiet for me. Nowadays, obviously that's not an issue anymore, but I still prefer to give kids worksheets that are scaffolded enough to be accessible to every kid without following a long lecture. The only times when I do "lecture" are when I emphasize different approaches to a problem, go over definitions, or model thinking-out-loud. But, those are rare -- like, 10 or 15 minutes per class -- or on a really bad day, maybe 25 minutes. Truly "mini" lessons.

Instead of lecturing, I put kids in groups to work on problems that are just one-step harder than what they're able to do individually (and I let them choose their own groups daily -- they are well-behaved more than 90% of the time, and the other times I have to be very on top of them and to speak sternly and look them in the eye and -- if the group is really incorrigible -- move kids into corners, you know, the "yuge"). And they argue over the problems, trying to figure them out on their own. And I go around and facilitate. Some days/years the kids rely on my questioning more than others. Other days I poke my head into groups just to make sure everyone did understand everything, and no "weak link" is being left behind conceptually and copying answers. In groups, I also re-explain concepts in a way that links to the bigger picture. Kids all know that they work in groups basically daily, and that my 5-to-10-minute instructions in the beginning of class (after the Do Now) are just setting them up for successfully attacking the assignment du jour. And so when I say, "Heads up!" just about everyone is actually listening.

Doing so has very real rewards, at least from a process perspective. Some days I look around the room and I am very pleased to see kids arguing over math. Like, LOUDLY and VEHEMENTLY! And LAUGHING at their own silly mistakes! (They're actually so into the math, sometimes, that I have to tell them to keep their voices down.) Other days I see kids explaining math to other kids in the hallway while working on a late homework assignment. Or helping them study in the library for a make-up quiz. Or some days kids come and see me before they are going home, because they are feeling sick but still want to take the quiz on the day it's supposed to be, so that they can get it back at the same time as everyone else. There is a real sense of community, like "We are learning math together," and a responsibility for their own understanding. Most of the time, they prefer to explain/ask each other for help before they will turn to me as sort of the "final verdict."

Those things make me happy, because my kids are being (in lack of a better word) proactive participants in the learning community. I don't do anything extraordinary to instill it, but I certainly expect it from all of them, and amazingly, they rise to the occasion. :)

PS. I do read out loud all the numeric answers and go over the big ideas again at the end of every class, to make sure that kids have absolutely no doubts remaining and they can self-monitor their understanding/accuracy. That takes about 5 minutes, but if I have done a good job circulating during the period and poking my head into every group, there is really not much content I still have to go over.


  1. Great post, Mimi. Your classes sound more like an after school math club than a math class!

    Are there any differences in how this plays out in honors vs regular courses? i.e., do you tend more towards 25 minute lessons in the honors courses because of greater content to cover?

  2. Thanks, Paul! :)

    And to answer your question: No. If anything, I lecture less in my honors classes -- like 5 minutes or maybe none at all. Those kids are too smart to learn from me; they like to learn from each other, and they do very well with spending a healthy amount of time struggling individually before asking the group for help, so I just let them go at their natural paces. A lot of times they sit in groups and end up just using the group to verify/compare answers periodically. And there are always a few kids who are sharp enough to figure out just about everything on their own, and they're glad to explain all the extra tricky bits to their groupmates. Usually when I do talk in my honors classes, it's at the end of the period, when there are a few groups stuck at the same part and I can't circulate fast enough to do my questioning-routine to everyone.

    In general, I try to go for depth rather than breadth in my honors classes. I don't intentionally push them to move at a faster pace, but they do so naturally because they only require a fraction of the time on each assignment (compared with my regular classes), and they require less repetition overall. I end up giving them a lot of extra enrichment/challenging assignments and extra projects, and letting them struggle the hell out of every assignment (for example, when they had to figure out from scratch how to construct certain geometric shapes with compass and ruler), but overall they are paced similarly as my regular classes. (Maybe a couple of days ahead, but still within the same unit.)

  3. "Those kids are too smart to learn from me"
    I hardly believe that's the case Mimi :)

  4. Hi Mimi~

    I'm a huge fan of your blog and all the work you do in your classroom! I love how you do so little lecturing and you empower students to learn on their own with the interaction of their peers.

    I also am a teacher and am teaching Geometry for the first time this year, and want to see more students learning/teaching from one another rather than doing all the teaching.

    Would you be willing to share a few examples of your worksheets so I can get a sense of how you scaffold and give guided instruction through those handouts?

  5. Hi Esther!

    Thanks!! I'm flattered. Do you have a few upcoming topics you want scaffolding ideas for? I might be able to whip up something specific to something you need.


    PS. First year teaching anything is hard in the creativity department, because you're strapped just getting the material across. I felt that way last year in Geometry for most of the year!