Thursday, February 13, 2014

Getting Students to Respond (and Have Fun Doing It!)

A few years ago our staff was presented with the opportunity to participate in a professional development program called Success Math.  It required a three-year commitment but promised to teach valuable strategies for improving math instruction.  One of my colleagues, Janelle, agreed to participate.

Over the last three years we have been offered glimpses of what she has learned.  Watching her teach a lesson, math seemed…dare I say it?…fun.  That was not a word I often associated with math.  I grew up a bookworm and majored in English in college.  I was never bad at math, it just wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed, and because of that, it was difficult for me to get enthusiastic about teaching it.  Or maybe it was more the follow-the-textbook-lesson-by-lesson approach that I didn’t enjoy.  What I noticed when I observed Janelle's lesson was that all the students were actively engaged, something I'm afraid wasn't always happening when I taught math.  

Fortunately for me, this year Janelle, with the support of two of her coaches from the Success Math program, was given the opportunity to share with the rest of us third grade teachers some of what she learned.  We have received instruction, participated in a practicum, and we have been observed and coached.  It has been quite an experience.  I can honestly say that the training has improved my teaching, not just in math but in all areas, as the strategies we have learned apply to all subjects. 

One strategy that we have focused on rather intently is modes of response.  Teachers have students use a variety of ways to participate and to respond to questions.   The key is to choose an appropriate mode and tell students which mode to use before asking your question.  I am pretty sure the only mode of response my teachers used when I was a kid was the good ol' raised hand.  Don’t get me wrong; I still have my students raise a quiet hand on occasion.  But I use a variety of other responses as well:  thumbs up if you agree, cross arms if you disagree, show me on your fingers, write it on
your whiteboard, whisper to your partner, etc.  These different modes of response work great in math, but I find that I use them all day long.  Now, even correcting homework is something that everyone actively participates in.

The benefit is that I get a better feel for how well every student in my class is grasping the content.  In addition, involvement is greatly increased because every child is expected to respond instead of only the one called on.  It also allows those children who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to actively participate without wandering too far out of their comfort zone.  Even those who may have more difficulty understanding the content, and therefore are prone to tuning out, can continue to participate with the support of their peers, thus greatly increasing their learning.  Behavior management becomes easier because everyone is actively engaged in the lesson, leaving little time to get off-task.  

Yesterday was a perfect example of how this strategy can have an impact on student learning.  One of my students has great difficulty staying focused for any length of time and is often lost and confused as a result.  We recently started studying geometry, and my lesson was on polygons.  Students had to learn the definition of a polygon as well as the names and definitions of different polygons.  Because students were constantly active, looking at examples and non-examples to come up with a definition, drawing their own examples, and responding to questions in a variety of ways, this particular student had no difficulty staying actively engaged in the lesson.  It was a win for him because he was able to learn the content, and it was a win for me because I didn't have to constantly redirect him.  Both he and I were able to walk away from that lesson feeling energized and confident.

I have found that this one strategy alone, successfully implemented, can improve classroom management and student involvement and provides me with the feedback I need to direct my teaching to better meet my students’ needs.  It definitely has made our lessons more fun!

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