# Can We Get This New Teacher a Quick and Meaningful Win?

### When new teachers are drowning, they need an inflatable raft, not an instruction manual for building their own cruise liner.

Josh Pullen, a student teacher, writes at his blog:

I wish there was a clear guidebook for the first 10 things to work on as a new teacher. I've been taught a lot of theory, but it's all too complicated & intertwined to implement all at one time. I've been told how to get from good to great, but how do I get from drowning to competent?

Can we offer Josh something here?

Do you know what I would love to offer Josh? I would love to offer Josh a way to spend **5-10 minutes every day next week**. I’d like that investment of time to *start paying off* quickly (because new teachers aren’t generally suffering from too many wins) and also *continue paying off* over time.

So we aren’t going to offer Josh a downloadable worksheet where students plot coordinates and connect them to form a picture of Taylor Swift. That might offer a quick win but not pay off dividends over time.

Likewise we aren’t going to suggest that Josh develop a new system for assessing his students either, something like standards-based grading for example. The gains there might be significant but deferred too far into the future.

Instead, we’re going to break a small piece off of a skill that takes a career to master: **leading a group discussion.**

At the end of a successful group discussion, the teacher feels like an accomplished carnival ringmaster, orchestra conductor, and group therapist all rolled into one person. The class, collectively, has become smarter in ways that it could not on its own. Students have learned that their classmates and, indeed, they themselves are smarter than they originally thought. Group discussions testify to many of the reasons why we learn math together in a classroom rather than alone in a library.

I also know many, many accomplished teachers and I would be surprised if any of them would tell me they have mastered the work of leading group discussions. I hope that with a small investment next week we can help Josh experience some of the work that will sustain his entire career.

To help Josh take a first step in the direction of successful group discussions, we need to first understand why group discussions often fail.

### Why Group Discussions Often Fail

A group discussion minus the discussion is just a group … staring at you. It’s one of the worst feelings in a teacher’s day. Lots of people will tell you that you just need to give the kids more “wait time”—just stare back at them essentially—but nine times out of ten this is not why kids are quiet. They’re quiet, instead, because:

**They don’t understand the question.**“What are you asking me?”**They can’t answer the question in a way that feels personal.**“I feel like you just want me to guess the answer in your head.”**They can’t find a safe way to answer.**Some students may have something to contribute but will opt out if the only option for sharing is*out loud**in front of the whole class*. Those students may need options for sharing that are*non-verbal*or*in small groups*initially. This is especially true if group discussions aren’t yet common in a class and students don’t know what to expect from them.

### How Can Josh Experience a Quick Group Discussion Win?

At the start or end of every class next week, I’d ask Josh to show students something that is mathematical and visual, something that stirs their imagination in ways that are personal to them and useful to each other, and then to ask questions that are extra-curricular and ungraded, to invite them to share their thinking from a posture of safety. So:

**Share the visual.**

Monday - Super Bear

Tuesday - File Cabinet

Wednesday - Volcano

Thursday - Pyramid of Pennies

Friday - World Record Balloon Dog

These videos involve ideas about quantity, scale, area, and rate but without any of the formal abstractions like tables, equations, and graphs that many of your students are still working to understand. (Real heads will recognize these as the first act of a 3-Act Math task.)

**Ask a question.**

These questions will, ideally, feel natural and unforced. The videos each attempt to connect to a kid’s sense of awe and scale, to perceptions of quantity and change that they have been developing since infancy.

Monday - How many regular bears equals one super bear?

Tuesday - How many Post-It notes will it take to cover the file cabinet?

Wednesday - How long will it take the lava to reach Tarata?

Thursday - How many pennies is that?

Friday - How long will it take the dog to pop all of the balloons?

Your *prime directive* here is to make sure students understand that you are interested in how *they* are thinking and, by extension, in *them* as individuals. They are wondering if you are only interested in hearing a faint echo of your* own *thinking and your job is to communicate to them, “No, I am interested in *yours.*”

**Offer students different ways to answer the question.**

Here is where you’ll start to experience the need for some class norms, the kind of light expectations that enable respectful, productive group discussions. You might ask kids to participate using any or all of these moves, or others entirely. Students might:

Think about their answer silently.

Write it on a piece of paper.

Share it with a neighbor.

Together come up with a new answer you both like better. (h/t Amanda Jansen)

Share something smart their partner said.

Raise their hands if they heard something similar.

Share something new to build on top of an earlier idea.

Here, our goal is to make participation easy and productive, to make it easy for every student to invest themselves in the group discussion from a position of safety, even if that means expressing themselves non-verbally with a raised hand.

You might circulate through the classroom during small-group discussion and listen for ideas that you think could benefit the entire class. Tell a student you think their idea is interesting and ask if you can call on them in a moment. This is called “warm calling,” and, since I’m trying to be helpful, here is a video of Colin Campbell warm calling on a student.

**[optional] Share the answer.**

Each of those links has an answer to the question. You can let students know that the answer is interesting and important but that hearing their thinking was more interesting and important to you in this moment.

I hope that on Friday this process will feel much easier than on Monday. I hope that on Friday the mechanics of being asked a question, sharing some thinking with a small group, and then with a large group, feels familiar to students. I hope that at that point you can play around with different kinds of participation structures and see which ones get the most out of your class and feel the most natural to you.

Some interesting ancillary benefits may emerge for Josh here!

A sense that teaching is a craft worthy of experimentation, study, and collaboration. Maybe Josh decides to switch up participation structures between periods or across days. Maybe he writes down what seemed to work and didn’t, trades those notes with colleagues, and a bunch of teachers experience teaching as learning.

A realization that group discussion about something concrete and intuitive is available for

*all of math*, not just the quote real world math unquote of the images and videos above. A realization that all of math—all of*learning*—is the process of formalizing informal knowledge. So formal math like linear equations can start with a discussion of visual patterns. Formal math like proof can start with a discussion of names and categories of shapes. Etc.

#### What Else?

I floated Josh’s question to my colleagues on the Desmos Classroom coaching team at Amplify. Some of the absolute sharpest minds in teacher development. Here are a few responses I have permission to share:

Daniel Luevanos:

I will say the best advice I ever got as a student teacher was to find a way to greet your students and say bye to them at the end of the day because you might be the only person who does in their entire day.

Stephanie Blair:

Lower your bar and be kind to yourself. You will mess up, and when you do, apologize to the class. Let them see you as human too.

Pam Habersetzer:

When my kids were in school, I had big hopes for them at the beginning of the year, and hoped that their teachers saw them as I did--as kids who, despite their quirkiness and flaws, have big potential and are worth knowing and listening to. My 22 year old self who was not yet a parent didn’t understand this. With this in mind, I’d say cultivate a mindset where you see potential in every student and find ways to communicate this to students every day.

Chrissy Newell

In the first two weeks of my student teaching placement I had little to no control over what happened in the classroom. My advice in that situation would have been to take a ton of notes and pay attention to how you feel in that class. If he’s actively teaching in the first couple weeks, I think my advice would be to make sure to identify bright spots for yourself in addition to identifying places to improve. I think I’d ask my mentor teacher to do that as well. Having those glimmers of success can help keep you going when things are hard.

¶

Really quick aside—“leading a group discussion” is one of TeachingWorks high leverage practices for math teachers. If you’re a new teacher, this description is probably a bit thick, but if you’ve been at this for a while, isn’t this description a thing of art?!

In a group discussion, the teacher and students work on specific content together, using one another’s ideas as resources. The purposes of a discussion are to build collective knowledge and capability in relation to specific instructional goals and to allow students to practice listening, speaking, interpreting, agreeing and disagreeing. The teacher and a wide range of students contribute orally, listen actively, and respond to and learn from others’ contributions. Teachers work to ensure students are positioned as competent among their peers, that patterns of interaction are respectful, and that the collective work of the group uses the strengths of and benefits each student.

Using one another’s ideas as a resource! Collective knowledge! Practice agreeing and disagreeing! Ensure students are positioned as competent among their peers! Wonderful. I need to know who wrote this.

I was given great advice during my first years as an elementary teacher. In elementary school, we are asked to know cross-curricular content and build classroom communities. My mentor teacher said, "pick one thing to focus on this year, don't try to be great at everything." I choose my thing, it was building a classroom community where students felt heard and respected each other as learners. The model of holding class discussions would have fit into that goal. Choosing one thing doesn't give you permission to stink at the rest, just give yourself grace and know it won't be perfect. There is next year, to build upon your craft.

Let's assume that Josh is (or has become) decent at leading group discussions. Can we as math teachers provide Josh with the right discussion materials? For example, suppose Josh has chosen the Balloon Dog (thank you Dan and all other 3-act players). What comes after the "how long do you think Twinkie will take to finish all 100 balloons?" What math knowledge does Josh need to lead this discussion? Can this balloon dog play actually be a full week lesson at a level appropriate for both Josh and his students?

To this point, I offer a couple of prompts:

How far does Twinkie run during his popping?

How good is Twinkie at popping balloons?

How good is Twinkie at choosing the next target balloon?

If Twinkie chose the next balloon at random each time, what would be his result?

What if it were 5 by 5 instead of 10 x 10?

My overall point is that when Dan Meyer asks the room of teachers what do you see and what do you wonder, he gets a certain result. When Josh asks the same question, he should have some idea of where the conversation might go and materials to support the next steps.

The Desmos Graphing Calculator is a wonderful tool for discovery and for creating materials to support a lesson. Try this link for making balloon arrays of different sizes.

https://www.desmos.com/calculator/fnv9wreq4h