Thursday, October 06, 2011

Math Exchanges by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind

It has been such fun to talk with Kassia Omohundro Wedekind about, and to read, her new book, Math Exchanges, over the past month or so. The book has clearly been a labor of love and I have such respect for teachers in the classroom who manage to write books. Math workshop is something that has interested me for some time but I have never really been able to wrap my head around. Thanks to Kassia I think this year will be quite different. My students and I are beginning a wonderful exploration of math through math exchanges.

So, here is a brief interview with Kassia to wrap up her blog tour.

You write quite a bit about the importance of the mathematical foundation students are getting in the early grades. Do you have any thoughts on common misconceptions or common areas of weakness in our instruction that need to be addressed?

As a math coach, one of the most interesting parts of my job was the wide perspective I got as a result of working with many more students than I saw in a single class. I really got the chance to delve into why kids were struggling. And the most interesting realization that came out of this unraveling of understandings and misunderstandings was, that in almost all cases, when I really analyzed what students understood, partially understood, and did not understand at all, most of their misconceptions were very similar to each other. The good news of what I learned though is that I think that we can fix, or rather prevent, these misconceptions from occurring—which is really a lot easier to do than trying to fix them after the fact.

One common misconception that I talk a lot about in my book is the long and complicated journey to the understanding of place value. (See Chapter 7: Building Number Sense through an Understanding of Ten) I think we’re not giving kids enough time and opportunities to truly construct an understanding of place value. In some senses we talk a lot about place value—we talk about the tens place and the ones place, we build numbers with base ten blocks, we make groups and regroup). And yet, the time we give to really consider why we group, why ten is so important in our number system and really think about how numbers are composed and decomposed is really very limited.

So, here’s where the good news comes in. I think there are some very simple ways we can prevent misconceptions and build stronger place value. I think we can change some of the tools we use and the kinds of problems we give to students. In the research I did for this book, these small changes had a significant impact on children’s understanding of the number system and their construction of place value concepts.

It is clear throughout your book that you work in a wonderful, supportive, collaborative atmosphere. Do you have any advice for teachers attempting to begin a math workshop on their own, without such support in their building?

That’s a great question. Math workshop is a much newer, less well-established practice than reading and writing workshop. Here are a couple of ideas:

1) Find at least one other person who is interested in teaching math through a workshop model. It’s so important to have a partner (even if it’s someone at another school you’re emailing with) to discuss what is working and what is not.

2) Think about what you value in reading and writing workshop. How can you translate that to a math workshop? Play on your strengths. If you know how to get rich conversation going in your reading workshop, think about how you could establish this in math workshop.

3) Start small. Start simply. Math workshop does not have to be complex or a complete change from what you are already doing. Perhaps you’re just adding one small group math exchange to your structure during the time your kids are playing a game or working on a problem you've taught them from your current math program. Perhaps you’re adding a short counting routine at the beginning of your math time. Use the resources you already have and then add new components.

Creating an environment in which children can and will talk about their thinking, in mathematics and other areas, is an important piece of math workshop. Can you share what you think are the most important things for a teacher to remember in working towards this goal?

Whenever you can make math meaningful and relevant to your community of learners, you’re going to change how your students think about what math is. You help students make a shift from thinking that math is something that is static, to something that is very much alive and evolving. That’s powerful! So, when my class worked on problems about how many potatoes we could grow in a raised bed at our school, how much cat food my mom needs to buy for her six cats, or how many more stops we’d go on the metro to get into Washington, D.C., these problems mattered. It mattered if the answer was six or sixty. They were acting as real mathematicians solving real problems.

No matter what structure you use for your math instruction, you can include these kinds of problems. Here’s one way I have found to be powerful: Have students work in pairs and solve problems on chart paper. Have them use markers to write (for ease in seeing what they wrote and also because then you can see all the steps they took with no erasing.) Talk about the strategies. Compare them. Talk about the strategies and the math. Also talk about how they worked with their partner. How did they negotiate the solving of the problem? What did their partner teach them? What happened when they disagreed?

Just as in reading and writing, a critical shift occurs when students take ownership over their mathematical lives.

Establishing routines in the primary grades is a huge piece of the start of the year. What sort of a timeline did you have for getting math workshop started? What did you introduce first? How did you add pieces? How long did it take to get the full workshop up and rolling?

It is always tempting to move too fast at the beginning of the year! Every year I have to remind myself to slow down and really make sure routines and structures are strong before taking the next step forward. In September I focus on three aspects of the workshop: 1) the warm-up routines, 2) the independent practice part of the workshop, and 3) the reflection at the end of the workshop.

Our warm up routines (counting around the circle, dot cards, math read aloud) are a short, but powerful number-sense focused part of our math workshop. (See Jessica Shumway’s new book, Number Sense Routines, which is all about this topic). In September we focus on a different routine each week and we really delve into the expectations for the routine.

I also focus on making sure the structure of the independent practice is in place (be it centers or partner tasks). I teach them how to take care of materials, how to talk to their partners when playing a game, how to switch centers, etc. I want to make sure that there is meaningful talk and play going on during the independent practice portion of the workshop. Only then can I feel comfortable removing myself from this part of the workshop and working with small groups.

I also focus on the reflection at the end of the workshop because this is a place where we share our strategies, discoveries, investigations. I teach children how to talk to each other, agree and disagree respectfully with one another, add on to each other’s thoughts and connect to each other’s ideas. We learn how to look out to the group when we’re talking and not just at the teacher. I teach them to value this part of the workshop as a place where we learn from one another, and not just from me, the teacher.

In mid to late October I start thinking about how I want to work with small groups. I start by working with just one group per day. I get my kids up and going in the independent practice, work with one group, and then return to check in on the independent practice. When this is going well, I’ll start working with two groups per day.

Think about what you most value in your workshop. Take the time to teach the expectations for this. It’s ok to go slow (I’m writing this to remind myself too! This is hard to do!). Start simple. Take on one part of the workshop at a time, if that works for you.

Leave a question for Kassia or for me or just leave a comment and one lucky person will receive a copy of Math Exchanges from Stenhouse. (If you already own Math Exchanges you can choose another title from Stenhouse.)


Noreene said...

Start small..Best advice ever!

Noreene said...

Start advive ever!

Anonymous said...

Start advice ever!
Noreene Chen

Erin said...

I'm really interested in this idea - I'm a first year teacher and math instruction is an area I'm super interested in learning more about. How would you compare math workshop to CGI? They sound like they have some similar elements.

Dahlia said...

It seems so logical that we would use a workshop approach in math as we would in any other subject...yet why have I waited so long to start one??

I have a question regarding the grouping in Exchanges. Do you group students by a certain skill or strategy that they are exploring or by past performance or does it differ?

Thank you! I can't wait to dig into this book!

Courtney said...

We had CGI staff development yesterday in preparation for our next staff development on this book. Can't wait! Today I had the wonderful experience of doing some large group problem solving after canters/math exchange time. Some kids stood up to share their strategies and one of my struggling learners who has already had some pretty big bumps in the road this year started screaming, "I have another solution! I have another solution!" Music to my ears. Thank you!

Kassia said...

@Erin CGI is a essential element and the philosophy behind the math workshops I describe in my book and much of my work is inspired by my understanding of CGI. When I read the work by the CGI folks I always wanted to know "What does this look like in a classroom over a long period of time?" A lot of my book was me trying to answer that question and search out how that would look/sound/feel across the primary grades.

Kassia said...

@Dahlia--My primary grouping strategy was to form heterogeneous groups. I would try to think, "What are the next steps for each child in the group?" "How will there participation in this group help them get there?" Most of what informed these decisions were my anecdotal notes from past math exchanges or recent assessments. How do you form groups in your classroom? There's a lot on grouping in the book!

@Courtney--That's so great to hear how your staff is taking on problem solving and math workshop as goals to work on. CGI is an integral part of my work. I'd love to hear more about your school's work and what successes and challenges you have. Please feel free to email me, I'd love to hear more. (And this, of course, is an open invitation for anyone! I'd love to hear about your math workshops and how math exchanges are going for you.) said...

Please I need this book! I need to start small but I need to start...
Thanks for sharing

Jill Fisch said...

Great post. I am so ready to begin thinking about all of this but like Kassia and others have said, I know that I need to go slow and start small. Have you started math workshops in your classroom yet. If so, where did you start and how is it going.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing some highlights from Kassia's book. I am a math consultant for my school district and today was given a project where I will help teachers learn how to work with small groups within the regular classroom setting. I am very excited about this project and the potential to help so many students. I need to orchestrate on-going professional learning to support these teachers as they begin to take baby steps with their students this year. We will continue our work over the next few years as well. This book looks as if it is a perfect fit for this work. It will provide the structure and framework to begin planning and change practice in the classroom which will lead to greater mathematical understanding for their students.

Mandy said...

Starting small and finding one person to work with is such great advice. The common core has made a critical change for understanding numbers within place value. So glad you had smart thinking about this, too.

Suzanne said...

My teaching partners and I are starting math workshop this year. I am so excited to read your comments. It validates what we have been working on all summer to get ready for this year. It is scary and exciting to try something new.

Jean said...

Suddenly all kinds of ideas for how to get kids involved in math exploration are popping up! This book is out at just the right time for me (and so many others)! It sounds like Number Sense is a good read, as well.

joy said...

The reflection piece is essential as is building a sense that the kids can learn from one another.

Wendy said...

Thanks for a great interview. It is so important to start small, but that is so easy to forget. Thanks for the reminder and advice. I can't wait to get the elements of math workshop up and running this year.

Erin said...

Sounds great - and sounds like I need this book!

Jenny said...

The random number generator picked 10 as our winner - Jill Fisch!

You can still read the entire book online for a bit:
If that link doesn't work, try and click on Table of Contents to find it. Thanks for all your comments and thoughts!

Jill Fisch said...

Yay! Thanks Jenny!

Loralee said...
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