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Can Talking About Math Really Help Students “Do” Math?

The role of teacher in our children’s early math education is shifting. No longer does classroom instruction consist primarily of lecturing to students who are sitting at their desks, quietly taking notes, and dutifully memorizing math facts. Rather, students are talking, describing, discussing, and communicating about math with their teacher and classmates in number talks.

Whether a child is a fast or slow learner, an ELL or from poverty, a purposeful, brief conversation can lead to the development of more accurate, efficient, and flexible math strategies. It sounds simple. However, creating intentional conversations about math can be tricky, especially in the younger grades.

Here’s a list of elements that must be in place to ensure number talks produce the maximum results.

A safe environment.
Children should feel free to offer their ideas, question their strategies and those of their classmates, and explore new strategies. This can happen only in a risk-free environment where students understand it really is okay to be wrong. To establish such an environment, all ideas and solutions must be accepted and not judged and wrong answers must be viewed as simply misconceptions, not mistakes.

Short sessions.
Our youngest learners have the shortest attention spans. It is vital teachers keep these conversations short. They are not intended to replace existing curriculum—but rather to enrich it. In fact, teachers can spend only 5 to 15 minutes to reap the full benefits of a number talk.

Problems that all learners can access.
While the problems and models used will differ for each number talk, one thing remains the same—all levels of learners must be able to solve them. This requires careful planning to design the right problems for students. Problem can be presented in different ways using dot cards, word problems, or ten frames. This will bring all learning styles into the learning experience.

Everyone’s thinking is valued.
To demonstrate acceptance of all ideas, teachers should listen to all answers with a blank face, rather than express disagreement or agreement. This may call for a role change among teachers who are accustomed to declaring “right” or “wrong.” Rather than serving as the source of all knowledge, they must transfer ownership to the students while equipping them with the tools to defend their thinking.

Adequate wait time provided.
During a number talk, students must be given time to think and solve the problem. Silence is a good thing. They must be encouraged to not wave their hands when they think have found “the” solution, but rather keep working on finding other approaches. This gives students the time and opportunity to discuss and clarify their solution, build a collection of possible solutions, consider whether other strategies make sense, and—most importantly—think.

Number talks that focus on student-led problem-solving may feel uncomfortable for teachers at first. But they can more easily make the required shift to facilitator by following students’ thinking with questioning. In fact, questioning is a critical component of number talks that engage all students in meaningful discussions. Teachers can help students reason mathematically by asking such questions as: Does it make sense? Might there be another way? Do you want to revise your answer? Re-think it?

The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics defines computational fluency as having efficient and accurate methods for computing. But timed tests aren’t the answer. Number talks are. By making number talks a routine part of the day, teachers can help children learn to reason numerically and build a solid foundation for future math learning.

Start creating purposeful conversations about numbers that can help your students compute more accurately and efficiently. SDE offers a webinar that goes into more depth about how to get started. Check out Building Math Fluency with Number Talks (Gr. K–2) by veteran teacher Ricky Mikelman.

From texting to video games to Facebook, today’s students are growing up in a hyper-stimulating world of mobile technology, TV, computers, and Google-fast access to information. It’s clear they have plenty of things to think about—too often, learning is not one of them.

How do teachers compete with all the distractions? It’s not easy. How can they wake up students, re-capture their attention when it lags (because it will), and keep them engaged through the end of each lesson? That’s what we’ll explore in this article—six simple, attention-grabbing strategies teachers can use to engage learners in spite of the many distractions they face in today’s world.

  1. Start off strong. Beginnings are the hardest. Students walk into their classrooms each morning thinking about everything but school. Teachers must make what feels like a heroic effort to reel them back in, arouse their curiosity, and engage them in the lesson to come. Do something new, something unexpected, something compelling to cause them to lean in and look up. Ask a startling question, show an interesting picture, tell a story, and use theatrics. In the battle for children’s brains, teachers have to always be on.
  2. Keep it brief. Student’s attention spans vary widely depending on motivation, time of day, enjoyment, and interest. According to primacy/recency research, we lose the attention of our students after eight seconds. And here’s something else. They will remember what they hear first, then last, but less of what they hear in the middle of a lesson. The solution: No more long lectures. Break content into segments, stop frequently, and give the class time to chew on what they just learned.
  3. Make it relevant. Teachers who know their students will be best prepared to link the content to them. Make the lesson, story, or activity personally meaningful. Connect it to students’ prior knowledge or experiences and show how it is applied in real life. Make it relatable to their world, not pie in the sky.
  4. Involve students. Learning is not a spectator sport. Students learn by getting involved, talking about it, writing about it, and relating it to their lives. How to encourage buy-in? Teachers can encourage questions and discussion, provide opportunities to work in pairs or groups to explore a topic more deeply, integrate short question and answer periods into the lesson, and build in hands-on activities. The more involved students are in learning, the greater the engagement and retention.
  5. Play games. Studies suggest children play an average of four hours a day on their devices playing games. Teacher can take advantage of that passion by introducing games into the curriculum. They’re not only fun, but can add excitement to more tedious learning, like math facts and test preparation. And, when competition is added in, children will be energized and begging for more.
  6. Take brain breaks. Quick exercises and movements can get a child’s blood flowing, unleash pent-up energy, and put a smile on their faces. After a few jumping jacks or a couple of minutes of yoga, children re-enter the classroom calm, focused, and ready to re-focus and learn.

These are just a few of the many ways to engage today’s learner. The bottom line: Don’t be predictable—that’s boring. Mix it up. Use different engagement strategies throughout the days and weeks to keep kids on their toes. Variety is the spice of life—especially for today’s easily distracted students.

For a deeper look at how to engage students and improve retention, listen in on SDE’s webinar Engaging the Learner (Gr. K–5), by veteran educator Lynne Ecenbarger.

Teaching with Rigor: A Call for a Different Kind of Instruction

We are preparing students for an unknown future—for filling jobs that don’t exist now, solving problems we can’t even imagine, and using technology that hasn’t been invented. Yet there is some concern schools aren’t preparing children adequately because they are not challenging them with rigorous academics.

Rigor—what does that mean anyway? What does it look like in a real classroom? Many teachers are scratching their heads and asking the same questions. We’ll explore the answers in this article.

Rigor—It’s Not That Complicated

Growing evidence suggest that children are capable of more than we thought and that academic rigor is one way to help close the achievement gap. But good luck trying to find consensus when you ask a group of teachers “What does rigor really mean?” Teachers may say it means adding more work—more problems to solve or more pages to read. Or longer work—15 minutes instead of 5. Or changing tests or teaching high-level students differently than low-level students. But that’s not the case.

Simply put, rigor describes school work, instruction, and learning experiences that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging. It’s determined not just by what is taught, but how it is taught. Rigorous instruction helps children dive deeper into and understand complex concepts and how to apply them in their lives. It encourages students to contrast and compare, estimate and interpret, define and match, formulate and invent, assess and justify. Most importantly, it gets kids to think.

You’ll Know It When You See It

Teachers are often unsure if their lessons are rigorous. A simple self-assessment will help them decide. Does it involve critical thinking and problem-solving? Collaboration? Does it promote agility and adaptability and call for initiative and analysis? Is it based in curiosity and imagination? If so, the lesson passes the test.

What happens in classrooms is also important Walk into an early childhood, academically rigorous room and you’ll probably see children playing—nothing unusual about that. But look deeper and you may see evidence of rigor in action:

  • Instead of reading a book out loud, children may be creating a script related to the topic or even a podcast.
  • Instead of writing a story about “my favorite summer vacation,” children may be writing an opinion piece related to real-world issues.
  • Instead of identifying shapes, students may be looking for shapes in the real world and even taking pics.
  • Instead of collecting data from a graph, students may be asked to vote on “what shall we do in class today?” and then tally the result.
  • Instead of working individually, students may be engaged in group investigations of a problem.

“It’s Too Hard!”

Some kids are bound to resist rigorous academics. Especially if the challenge is presented in a way that makes the work seem harder, require more effort, and be uncomfortable.

How to overcome their resistance? Teachers must become rigor advocates. They must change the way students feel about rigor by weaving positive messages about rigor into their day.

Push yourself just a little harder. Rigor is pushing beyond what easy. It’s knowing our individual limits and going a little further to get better at something. Teachers can explain to students how improving—in softball or bicycling or reading—is going to be a little uncomfortable. But that’s okay.

Go ahead and try even if you’re afraid. Trying something new can be scary. We could fail or be embarrassed. Other kids may laugh at us. Teachers not only need to provide more rigorous tasks or assignments, but also help children build the personal strength they need to go for it. Have an ongoing conversation about what it means to try, what’s the purpose of trying more difficult texts or math problems, and how other children do it.

Do it your way. Encourage experimentation, give children the freedom to find their own ways of accomplishing the more rigorous task, and have some fun. Getting too serious about rigor can frustrate students.

Teaching with rigor requires a shift in thinking and instruction. But it’s worth it. It will make a classroom more alive, more exciting, more engaging, and a lot more fun.

There is so much more to learn about rigor. To delve deeper into this timely area, check out SDE’s webinar Rigor! What’s It All About? (Grades K–2) by educator, author, and National Board Certified Sandi Reyes.

Teaching Young Children in a Digital World to Tell Time

Teaching young students how to tell time has become a lot more challenging. Back in the day, when asked what time it is, a child simply looked to the round clock hanging on the wall.

Today, however, children don’t think in terms of wall clocks. When asked what time it is, a young child will likely check their digital device—or, in some cases, their own cell phone—and the answer will be displayed.

Even so, time-telling remains an important skill every student needs to learn—from pre-kindergartners who need to know when story time begins to pre-teens who must be ready for the school bus.

In this article, we’ll explore the challenge of teaching young children essential time concepts.

From Abstract to Concrete

Time is an abstract concept that has little meaning for very young children. They are unaware of time and they don’t use time skills to get through the day, week, or month. During these early years, adult make time adjustments for young children. But soon a child recognizes time as an important concept to grasp.

That’s why it’s smart to introduce young students to the abstract concept of time rather than immediately delve into the numbers. This will get a child comfortable for what’s to come. For example, make it a habit to announce when an event—circle time or center time—will occur and announce when those events are over. Teachers can also use a stopwatch or timer to time some of these favorite activities to help students think in terms of intervals.

Learn the Numbers

Children must recognize numbers up to 60 in order to tell time. Confusion about numbers or their correct order can seriously handicap a child learning to tell time. Teachers can help a child learn double digit numbers by pointing them out throughout the day—for example the numbers above a classroom or the pages in a book—and have the child repeat the numbers back.

Digital and Analog

Children need to easily convert digital times to analog clocks and vice versa. To teach this skill, first introduce an analog clock—as opposed to a digital tool. An analog clock helps with comprehension because children can see hands on the clock which move. An analog clock will also encourage children to think and count in terms of fives. Later, the child will be ready for a digital clock and learning how the up and down buttons indicate different times.

Avoid Confusing Figurative Expressions

Children have difficulty visualizing the concept of elapsed time. Teaching it is even more difficult when students struggle or when they arrive in the classroom with varying levels of foundational knowledge. The best approach? Proceed slowly. Try integrating words like morning, afternoon, and night into the day. Talk about when students eat lunch or what time they are required to go to bed. Be specific about time rather than giving children a quick answer, such as “Give me a minute” or “I’ll be there in five”, that could be confusing for young children who have difficulty adding and subtracting time.

Time-telling is a basic skill children do not automatically learn. It must be taught explicitly. After a few weeks using these tips, teachers should see improvement in both time-telling skills and confidence.

For a deeper look at how to accelerate your students’ mastery of time, check out SDE’s webinar Teaching Time & Money (Gr. 1–3), by educator and math expert Kristin Hilty.

Webinar: Finally, Fine Motor! (Gr. PreK-K)

On-Demand. Watch Anytime!

Presented by Cindy Middendorf


Coaching a child to write his name or draw a picture before he can effectively manipulate a pencil or crayon is like teaching a teen to parallel park before they can operate the shifting lever! Teacher and author Cindy Middendorf will discuss the basics of hand dominance, and the reasons why children grip the pencil in such inventive ways. You’ll learn some classroom-tested activities and strategies for building fine motor strength and acuity while addressing important curricular areas.

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