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Student Engagement

Creating an Inviting Virtual Math Classroom

Focusing on connections—both conceptual and interpersonal—helps teachers work well together to create engaging math work for students.

January 15, 2021
Elementary aged boy on laptop distance learning at home
Vesnaandjic / iStock

As math coaches, we’ve worked for months now with teachers who are striving to create lively, inviting virtual classrooms. Over time, it’s become clear that there is one consistent ingredient for success when it comes to student engagement in remote math instruction: making connections, both conceptual and interpersonal. When teachers embrace an understanding of the importance of connections and apply it in different ways in their instruction and relationships, student engagement is fortified—and teachers are buoyed by their success.

Consider Visibility

Whether you are in a school building or teaching remotely, student thinking—including connections they make among ideas—needs to inform your teaching decisions; collecting student thinking and making it visible informs teachers’ planning for the next day’s lesson.

When you are in a brick-and-mortar classroom, you are constantly assessing how students are doing, watching them work out problems on the whiteboard and looking at how students arrive at their conclusions. But when you teach remotely, it can be very difficult to actually see students’ work in real time—their thinking can be frustratingly opaque. Without that real-time, right-in-front-of-you insight, planning what’s next is challenging.

The right platform can make all the difference when it comes to making student thinking visible, so look for tools that not only promote student engagement but make student thinking transparent; that transparency will inform your instructional decisions.

Jamboard, Classkick, Padlet, Pear Deck, and Nearpod are all platforms that both promote student engagement and capture student thinking. They also allow teachers to watch their whole class, on one screen, in real time, so that students can engage with each other and build on each other’s ideas to arrive at a richer understanding of mathematics. With these tools, students can show what they know; teachers are then armed with the information they need, and, just as important, students feel seen.

Jamboard, for example, allows students to work collaboratively on the same page and offers options for students to share their thinking by text, drawing, dragging images, and inserting photos of their work into the page. Envision for a moment second graders studying the difference between two numbers: on a Jamboard, students or teachers can insert images of two people and visually compare the heights. From there, students can see that subtraction is not just a removal but the distance between two numbers—a subject for robust in-class analysis. Based on what they see in Jamboard, the teachers can offer immediate feedback to the whole class or to an individual student.

When selecting an online tool or platform, it is important to have a clear math learning goal in mind. Start with what you want your students to learn, and from there explore which tools can deliver on that, and how.

Use Strong Math Routines Regularly

Child psychologist Lev Vygotsky said, “Social interaction is the origin and engine of learning.” Creating opportunities for students to connect, engage, and collaborate with rich tasks is a crucial part of a remote classroom—and so is creating the expectation of that regular, consistent experience among your students.

Daily five-to-10-minute math routines, which are designed to develop students’ numeracy skills, reasoning, and sense making, are the perfect tool for practicing critical thinking skills and connecting concepts, and they help build students’ confidence. Moreover, when students know what to expect, rather than focusing on the pragmatics of the task, they get to the heart of the mathematical inquiry, develop their own questions, and build on their own intuition.

One routine we use is notices and wonders, in which the teacher shares a math image, math task, or student work and asks, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” The teacher makes it clear that there is no right or wrong answer. This routine builds a learning environment where everyone in the classroom is an intellectual contributor; something that seems obvious to one student is an insight for another. Since the ideas are coming from the students rather than the teacher, students’ engagement, motivation, and curiosity is greater—they become more inclined to behave like mathematicians and sense makers whose ideas matter.

Notices and wonders can also prompt students to look at each other’s work, again helping them to make connections with each other and analyze and collaborate to surface important mathematical ideas.

Some of our other favorite daily math routines include number talks, same but different, Splat!, Which one doesn’t belong?, visual number talks, and slow reveal. The goal of all these routines is to create a “thinking classroom”—one where students’ ideas are elevated and rich mathematics is explored.

Collaborate With Colleagues

Microinteractions in schools weave a tapestry of trust and interdependence among staff, but these days teachers have less contact with their peers and fewer opportunities to engage in the natural exchange of insights and practices. Since these connections among teachers, whether formal or informal, are key to successful student learning, you have to make a point of fostering them in a remote environment.

Schools that had PLCs (professional learning communities) or CFGs (critical friends groups) in place pre-pandemic already have protocols in place, but schools can still initiate regular meetings for teachers, math coaches, and administrators so they can work and think together. This way they can share problems of practice, success stories, and digital tools, and look at student work together. Doing mathematics with a colleague before teaching the lesson with students can be particularly productive because it provides an opportunity to relearn the math, gain a clearer version of the math goal, and experience multiple ways to approach the same problem.

We’ve noticed that teachers who work closely with colleagues are more grounded and more successful. Collaborating closely with colleagues removes barriers between classrooms. “Your students” becomes “our students”—again, it’s a practice of building connections. Working together and learning more deeply about the content we teach allows us to enact the very practices we are trying to instill in our students.

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