Math = Love: Math Teachers' Circle Takeaways #1

Monday, June 6, 2016

Math Teachers' Circle Takeaways #1

Today was the first of three days of my local math teachers' circle's summer immersion workshop.  Picture a room full of 30 elementary, middle, and high school teachers plus a smattering of university professors in a room exploring challenging problems together.  This is my second year attending, and it is an absolute blast.

We had breakfast, two morning problem solving sessions, lunch, and an afternoon problem solving session.  The topics we explored today were pentominoes and divisibility, cryptography, and something called polygon differencing.

My goal with this post is to share a couple of my take-aways from today. We had to take a pre-workshop survey, and one of the questions asked about what we felt were our strengths and weaknesses as a mathematics teacher.  I listed teaching students to problem solve as a weakness.  With this in mind, I kept a page of ideas throughout the course of the day.

Developing Norms

One of my favorite things we did was de-brief after the first session on pentominoes.  We were asked to take out a sheet of paper and answer two questions.

1.  What characteristics describe a good group member?

2.  What characteristics describe a good problem solver?

We took our answers to these questions, shared them in our groups, and then compiled a top 3 list for our group.  Then, we compiled our group lists into a set of norms.

Since I am planning to have students work in groups this coming school year, I think I'd like to do some problem solving activities the first few days and develop a set of norms at the same time.  These norms could then be posted for students to reference throughout the school year.  

Now, I just need to figure out what sorts of problems I want to pose to my students.

Round Robin Strategy

Another thing I quickly took note of as soon as we did it so I wouldn't forget was a round robin strategy for sharing within our groups.  The facilitator provided us with our first problem and told us to work on it independently for 10 minutes.  No discussing with tablemates at all.  Then, after the timer went off, she announced that we were going to do a round robin.  How she approached the round robin really appealed to me.  Instead of asking everyone to share what they had come up with, she asked each person to go around the circle and (in less than a minute) share how he/she had originally approached the problem.  We weren't supposed to share what we had discovered in the ten minutes we had been working on the problem.  We were only supposed to share our initial thoughts.  It was very interesting to hear where everyone in the group had started.  This provided insights into how others were thinking that normally wouldn't be shared because they weren't polished/proved/or even right.

When I just ask students to share final answers without how they got there, I'm doing a disservice to my students.  This reminds me of the book Making Thinking Visible (affiliate link) which I read in early 2013.  I pulled it back out this week and started it again.

Looking forward to sharing more takeaways soon!


  1. Yes! Celebrate different entry points. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks for wording so nicely what I was trying to describe!

  2. a girl has no nameJune 8, 2016 at 11:57 AM

    Hey Sarah :)

    I read this blog article and thought about the 2 points you discussed in this math teachers' circle's summer immersion workshop:

    1. What characteristics describe a good group member?

    2. What characteristics describe a good problem solver?

    Maybe you should work this out together with your students first, when you plan to let them work in groups.
    and maybe it could be interesting to ask them whether they think that a good group member is also a good problem solver and vice versa.

    1. It is probably a good idea to talk with the students about what a good group member, and what a good problem solver is. But wait a minute, maybe Sarah has done this already in some way?

  3. I am currently seeking my degree in Special Education at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and I am taking a "How to Teach Math" class. In said class, we do what is called Math Talks. Albeit far simpler problems, the teacher calls everyone up to the board, writes an equation on it, gives us 30-40 seconds to do it in our heads, and, picking students at random, asks, "What answer did you get? Did anyone get a different answer? How did get that answer? Did anyone else find that answer a different way?"
    There are more than one way to find the correct answer. Some ways are easier than others, but there is no wrong way to get the right answer. Thank you :)