George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Dos and Don’ts for the First 2 Weeks of Elementary Math Classes

Fostering a positive learning environment in the first weeks of the school year can set elementary students up for success in math all year.

July 11, 2022
Elementary teacher works with a student using a math manipulative
sturti / iStock

It’s the middle of summer, and you may be starting to get jittery about setting up your classroom and planning lessons for your students. Maybe you have new resources or want to try a new activity you read about on a blog or saw on a website. Or you may have attended a professional development and want to practice what you learned.

With all that said, there are some practices and traditions in the beginning weeks of math lessons that we should all reconsider. Remember that this is a time to establish routines and expectations, a time to promote a positive learning environment, especially in math. To get the most out of the first weeks, consider the following suggestions if you’re looking to enhance your math lesson plans.

Alternative Math Lessons

Avoid: Giving timed tests during the first few days.

Why? Time shouldn’t be a factor when assessing student knowledge. Time has nothing to do with fluency. Math isn’t supposed to be about timed fact tests—rather, it’s about making connections, seeing patterns, and exploring numbers.

Instead: Play math games that incorporate the skills you want to assess. Students will enjoy games or activities that incorporate math skills. You can observe the skills a student possesses and what assistance they may need. Depending on the game, you may want to have students write down their calculations on paper for you to look at later.

Avoid: Spending days drilling and killing.

Why? Drilling and killing is not engaging for students. Worksheets are tiring and don’t require rigorous thinking. They’re an outdated practice; they expect students to rely on rote memorization and don’t tap into their thought processes.

Instead: Try using a performance assessment task to understand students’ thought processes. How are they reading the problem? What will they do first? What methods will they use to solve the problem? You may find out more about a student by how they solve a problem than you would with a variety of worksheets. Find an activity where the students get hands-on experience with manipulatives.

Avoid: Diving straight into your curriculum or textbook.

Why? Math is not about turning pages from lesson to lesson in a textbook. Diving straight into a textbook dulls the joy and beauty of math. Math lives all around us, so show students how math is about sense-making, connecting, proving, and reasoning.

Instead: Have a conversation about math. Try using routines such as “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” or “Would You Rather” to get students talking about what they see. Throw in a number talk image and ask students to count “How many?Three Act Tasks are invigorating, especially during the first weeks of school. And students love the imagery depicted in Three Act lessons.

Avoid: Completing a diagnostic test that’s computer-generated during the first week.

Why? The start of the school year is a time for teachers to get to know their students and their needs. Students staring at a computer screen and taking a third-party test is not the best way to do that. By no means should any teacher go against a principal’s or district’s directive. But if there’s flexibility in planning when to complete this task, try holding off until until the second week of school. Another alternative is to complete the diagnostic a little bit at a time so as to not overwhelm students.

Instead: Create a positive math environment. Create dialogue with students by asking about their personal experiences with math learning. Ask questions like “What makes a math person?” or “What are your feelings about math?” Have a conversation about your expectations regarding making mistakes, telling students that it’s OK to make mistakes because we expect them, respect them, and will correct them. Teach students about growth mindset and tell them that their brain grows every time they make a mistake.

By the third week of school, go ahead and start diving into your curriculum, once your students are open to math possibilities. They’ll be willing to put effort into their math work because they know that their brains are growing. As teachers, we need to show them that we value their work and their efforts. The practices we try to avoid give negative connotations to mathematics. We should create a positive learning environment that welcomes mistakes as well as honors them.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Formative Assessment
  • Math
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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