4 Great Ways to Start Math Class in Elementary School
Many students experience disconnection and a sense of anxiety when they hear “It’s time for math.” Instructional routines and strategies that naturally invite and engage students in the first 5 minutes of class can significantly increase student engagement in the entire lesson. Instructional strategies that lead to student engagement build interest, sustain persistence, and support self-regulation and a sense of belonging. And when students feel that they belong, their engagement increases and they are more willing to participate in small group discussions, persevere through challenges, defend their thinking, reason through the thinking of others, and make connections.
At All Learners Network, we suggest opening each math class with a launch or number sense routine to set the tone for learning. This welcoming, inclusive activity is used daily, typically in the first few minutes of a balanced math block for purposeful, discussion-rich learning opportunities. The launch should be engaging, relevant, and open-ended enough that all students can participate.
Notices and Wonders: This strategy provides students with different visual prompts to consider. We encourage the use of interesting photos that are relevant to students’ lives. For example, a teacher might display a plate of cookies, a parking lot full of fast cars, a row of vegetables in a garden, or a vending machine of treats. Then, students can share what they notice about color, type of object, the organization of the objects.
Students can also be prompted to wonder, asking questions like, “How many cars in one row? How many in the whole parking lot? How many cookies are on the plate? How many of each snack in the vending machine?” From there, the teacher can choose one question to share strategies and solutions for but leave the rest of the questions up for further exploration later.
In this strategy, all students have the opportunity to share something that is observable and something they are curious about, allowing them to feel like their voices are valued in the classroom community.
Which One Doesn’t Belong: In this strategy, a teacher displays four images and asks students which one doesn’t belong. However, there isn’t a single answer: There can be justifications for all of the items or images. For example, an image with four quadrants could have one frosted cookie, one chocolate-covered doughnut, one brownie, and one sandwich cookie.
In this discussion, some students might say the frosted cookie doesn’t belong because it’s the only one with frosting, whereas others may say the brownie doesn’t belong because it has straight sides. Some students might find a reason for only one of the choices, whereas other students may find multiple reasons for each choice. Ultimately there is no one right answer, and the focus is on the reasoning that students provide for their choices.
Would You Rather: This strategy asks students to engage in conversation and justify their thinking. In one example, there are two images: a circular pizza and a rectangular pizza. The question reads: “Would you rather eat two slices from a round pizza with a 12-inch diameter that has been cut into eight pieces or eat one slice from a 15-by-10-inch sheet pizza that has been cut into six pieces ?”
In this conversation, students are comparing which pizza they prefer and will need to justify their reasoning with evidence from the image. Some kids want more pizza, of course, and so they have to justify which slice gives them more, while others might say, “I like the smaller one because I don’t want to eat a lot of pizza” or “I prefer a circle over a rectangle.” All answers can be correct, as long as students can justify their logic.
Number Strings/Problem Strings: This strategy helps students discover patterns and relationships and engage with the properties of operations. In a number string, teachers start by showing students the first problem to solve, sharing strategies and the solution, and then encourage students to use that solution to solve the next expression in the string. Number strings help kids see that you can break apart (decompose) numbers to help you solve a new equation. Some strings are done as a number talk (mental math), and in others students are recording their own thinking.
- A teacher might first show 7 x 8 = ____.
- Students solve the problem and are prompted to use the solution to solve 14 x 8.
- Students solve and are prompted to use that solution to solve 28 x 8.
The conversation wraps up with a discussion of similarities and differences between the completed equations. These are considered “low-floor/high-ceiling” tasks, as they are open-ended enough for all students to engage at the beginning and then increase in complexity as the string progresses.
If we want all students to learn in math class, we need to ensure that they are engaged and feel a sense of accomplishment and belonging from the very beginning. Using a launch or number sense routine in the first 5 minutes ensures that students feel their voices are heard, they are valued, and they have a way to contribute.
These routines also provide opportunities for dialogue between and among peers. Students learn how to communicate effectively through regular conversations about the math they do while engaging with their peers and building confidence at the beginning of math class. This sense of belonging increases engagement and supports students in being ready to learn from the beginning of the lesson.
I’d like to thank my colleague TJ Jemison for his contributions to this article. You can follow him on Twitter.