The Minimalist Educator Podcast

Episode 007: Minimalism in Math Instruction with Naomi Church

October 03, 2023 Season 1 Episode 6
The Minimalist Educator Podcast
Episode 007: Minimalism in Math Instruction with Naomi Church
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we speak to Naomi Church, Chief Learning Officer at Growing Minds Consulting, about how to teachers can pare down decisions they make and how best to use their math block. And she shares her pare down pointer about getting picky!

Naomi Church is a speaker, author, experienced educator, and credentialed coach. She served in very large public school districts for almost 20 years as a Professional Development Specialist, Math intervention specialist, RtI Coordinator, Instructional Coach, and teacher leader. Naomi created a Mathematics for Struggling Learners training for the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System (FDLRS) that is being implemented across the State of Florida. In her role as the Chief Learning Officer of Growing Minds Consulting, Naomi now works with schools, districts and departments of education to help make education more inclusive and equitable for all. As the President of Learning Forward Florida, Naomi is helping to re-envision professional learning for educators to maximize engagement, value and implementation. Naomi is passionate about professional learning and building capacity in teachers and families to increase student success.

Resources written by Naomi:
The Value of Choice Blog Post
The Homework Debate: What is the ‘Right’ Homework? Blog Post
Reteaching vs. Remediation Blog Post

Resources Naomi recommends:
Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics: 14 Teaching Practices for Enhancing Learning by Peter Liljedahl
Productive Math Struggle: A 6-Point action Plan for Fostering Perseverance by John SanGiovanni, Susie Klatt, Kevin Dykema
Math Fact fluency: 60+ Games and Assessment Tools to Support Learning and Retention by Jennifer Bay-Williams and Gina Kling
Math Fact Fluency Companion Website

This episode is sponsored by EdmundsOut Enterprises LLC, fostering acceptance of children and adults with autism in our schools and communities through knowledge and understanding.

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The Minimalist Educator Podcast is a Plan Z Professional Learning Services adventure.

In this episode, we speak to Naomi church about how teachers can pare down decisions they make, and how best to use their math block, and she shares her pare down point are about getting picky.

Naomi Church is a speaker, author, experienced educator and credentialed coach. She served in very large public school districts for almost 20 years. As a professional development specialist, math intervention specialist, RTI coordinator, instructional coach and teacher leader, Naomi created a mathematics for struggling learners training for the Florida diagnostic and learning resources system that is being implemented across the state of Florida. In her role as the chief learning officer of growing lines consulting, Naomi now works with schools, districts and Departments of Education to help education more inclusive and equitable for all, as the President of learning forward Florida ame is helping helping to re envision professional learning for educators to maximize maximize engagement, value and implementation. Naomi is passionate about professional learning, and building capacity and teachers and families to increase student success. Hello, Naomi, welcome to the show. Thanks for being on with us today.

Thank you for having me, I'm really excited to chat today.

We know that math is your specialty, obviously. And I've gotten to know you over the last few years in a few capacities. But I always love watching you teach educators about math instruction and creating access for learners. And so we're going to talk about that today. But we're also going to talk about math in the classroom. Because we know that math is really complex as a subject. And math instruction is also complex. And we're talking about minimizing things which can be pretty tough in a math classroom. So what are some of the things that teachers need to think about just generally when they are addressing math instruction in their classrooms?

Yes, so in a general math classroom, there are so many things going on, right? Our teachers have to consider what are the standard words, right? What's the set of standards for the the country that they're in? What's the scope and sequence? When is standardized testing how much of this has to get done possibly before standardized testing, differentiation and reteaching for students who don't seem to be mastering the content, if they have an adopted instructional material, how to be using that textbook, or those materials, which activities and resources to pull? So there's a lot of things that really, they need to think about and integrate all the time. But I would like to put it out there that while yes, all that stuff is on the table, it, it might be better to instead be thinking about who's doing the thinking and who's working the hardest. Right? So if we reposition it away from this laundry list of all of the considerations in math, and change it over into within the math classroom, who's doing the thing, keying and who's working the hardest, it changes the way that we approach the math instruction.

That's really valuable. Because I know that I've been one of those teachers where I'm just thinking way too hard. I'm thinking more than my students. I'm doing more than my students. And I think listeners can really relate to that because we are always thinking about what I need to do this and I need to create the support and I need to do all these things for my students. But stepping back a little bit to allow some of those pieces to be in the hands of our learners is really valuable and it takes away some of the things that teachers have to do, whether it's decisions that are made, or even just talking less Right and letting the kids talk more. So can you talk a little bit about how parents, I'm sorry, not parents, how educators can or what frameworks even that educators can think about, or use, or implement when they're trying to step back and just reduce a little bit of that, whether it's front loading or too much thinking for their students?

For sure, yeah, the math instruction can certainly seem overwhelming when you're trying to pull in a million things at once. And I think that as we're talking about minimalism in math, we need to think about universal design for learning. So this is a framework that I am super passionate about. And at its core, it's really about creating expert learners that instead of teaching content to students, to anybody, really, we're teaching them how to learn. And these are skills that are going to benefit them in every context for their whole lives. Right, we offer a buffet of learning options. And then we teach our students to play off of their own strengths to leverage what it is that they're good at, to help make decisions. So if we want to stop doing all of the thinking, and put it in the hands of our students, part of how we do that is by universally designing the instruction, that perhaps instead of telling them, how to show what they know, we give them options for showing what they know, in a way that makes them excited, or that builds their confidence, or that leverages their strengths. At the same time, I'm, we look at productive struggle in math. So with the best of intentions, in a math class, we typically give students all the answers. If we're solving multi step word problem, we're gonna break it down and tell them what every step is going to be, and where it goes and why. And when we do that, we're pulling the thinking out of the math, and it just becomes rote memorization and following procedures. And so if we want to put the thinking back in the hands of students, we need to embrace this idea of productive struggle. And that word, productive is key, right? We've all been in classrooms, where there's unproductive struggle, where students are frustrated, and maybe we're seeing behavior problems. And there's no evidence of it in other ways. So productive struggle is very intentional in choosing the right examples or problems that are maybe just outside of the current ability level, or, you know, just outside of what we've already learned to stretch it enough to allow students to make connections for themselves. So between UDL, and then productive struggle, we're looking at, looking at taking some of this out of the hands of the teacher. So it's not the teacher having to make a million different decisions. And we're putting these things in the hands of the students. And then there's a great book that that a lot of folks have been talking about called Building thinking classrooms. And this book is neat, because it goes into a lot of the research behind how to get students to think. And when we really dig into that research, none of it has to do with the teacher standing up there making all the decisions and doing the talking. It is getting problems in the hands of students getting them in groups, getting them to show their thinking and make it visible.

Oh, that's awesome. Naomi, I'm making so many connections as you're talking they're thinking about the you know, who's doing the thinking, who's doing the work, who's doing the talking and you know, all of that, you know, the learning pit with the productive struggle, like so many connections going at the moment. So you know, Tammy and I talk a lot about you know, thinking about your your priorities and making priorities, you know, a big part of what you're doing. So, how do we use our priorities and make decisions with with all of these different things that we need to tackle?

Like that. So as teachers in any subject at any level, we make 1000s of decisions every day. And I taught elementary and an elementary teacher who was responsive trouble for all of the subjects, it felt like even more. And so we can think about shifting some of that decision making from the teachers on to the students. Not every choice has to come from the teacher. So we can think about in student students choose the problem that they're working on, instead of the teacher choosing for them, can the students choose who they work with, instead of the teacher spending all of this time coming up with these groups, having the students choose the manipulatives that they work at with sometimes there's value in choosing the wrong manipulative and finding a really inefficient way to work on something that leads them to the right manipulative? And we stripped that from our students by just handing them the one that we know will work. And students choose what color they write with? Doesn't matter. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. Maybe they want to color coded in a different way. Maybe they want to show their thought process through the use of different colors. Right? Can students choose how they show master? Read, some students are really good with visuals and graphics. Some students are really good with talking. Some students are really good with writing, can they choose how they show mastery and leverage their strength? Can they choose the numbers in the problem? A Lepin is my favorite number. So if I see an 11 in a problem, I usually want to choose that problem or find a way to put it in, right, they all have favorite numbers, maybe it's their paper basketball players number, or their birthday, or the number they use in sports. And so yeah, letting students choose even the the numbers that they use, right? There's so many of these decisions that teachers are making every day that maybe they don't have to. I've got an

observation or thought or question about that, in particular, just the ideas around what can kids choose? Right? So it's reducing some of that decision making for teachers in the classroom? How do we get past some of the ingrained mindset of teachers that they have to do all of this for their students? Because that for me when I'm working with teachers is often a struggle. And so I don't know if you've have like a tip or something? Or if it's just like ongoing discussion about where can we let go of decisions. But that's what I'm noticing. It's really hard. So they'll they'll say, yeah, they're making choices. They're doing these things in the classroom. But then I see the opposite of that, or when I talk to students, they aren't making those decisions. So, you know, it's, I guess it's a question to end a statement, spine posture, which I

think that it has to be grabbed. Actual, a lot of us who went into teaching, especially a lot of us who went into elementary teaching, I think, are Type A personalities. And we really liked things that worked in that used to be liked to have control over things. And I know personal Lee in the classroom, it was really difficult for me to give some of these things up, because then there's a whole lot more uncertainty. Like when you leave things in the hands of 25, six year olds, you never know what's going to happen. Right? So yeah, it's not easy. And there's not going to be a quick answer that's like, oh, yeah, just turn it all over. I think that it has to be gradual. And you have to start with decisions that you're willing to give up or that you're more willing to give up. And maybe it starts by you narrowing down the field to three problems or five problems. And then they can pick which problem they want to do from there. Maybe it's not a free for all right? Maybe it's not an option of I don't know, how do you think you can show me what you know, in the best possible way? Maybe it's, you can write an essay, you can make a video explaining it. Or you can make a PowerPoint and the slides explain it. Maybe there's just three choices instead of unlimited choices. Right? Maybe you can't handle kids writing and marker and then making mistakes and crossing them out. So maybe it's a choice of a pencil or any erasable pen so that there's still a way for them to eat. So there's some choice, but it's not wide open, I think that you have to sort of wade into this pool of choice. And then as you become more comfortable giving up control, you can offer more and more. And I think that this really goes along with ethicacy, where when we see students making choices and being more confident, and being better able to show what they know, and maybe having to reteach less, because the students were able to show you know what they do, then we're more likely to give them more leeway, and give them more space here, because we're seeing that it's working, it's hard to just give it all up at once.

Yeah, it's definitely a journey, isn't it? But hopefully, people can, you know, no matter who they are, or where they're working, they're confined one way in to giving the kids a little bit more of that, say in the classroom. So math books are usually 30 to 60 minutes in the elementary classroom, even the secondary classroom as well. So knowing that teachers are very time poor, what would you suggest would be the best ways that we could use that short math block time.

So I love it, when it's possible for a math block to be 90 minutes long, that is amazing, especially if we can make the reading block and the math block the same amount of time so that we're really showing that math is an equal priority. And it's not secondary to reading instruction. So I want to put that out there. But yes, of course, we always have limited time. And within the math block, we're looking at teaching new things, right, that is just a part of how this work, we have to teach the standards, we probably have a scope and sequence to follow. So we have to teach new things. We also likely have to reteach when students are not showing mastery or when they're just not getting something, right, we need to have the ability to reteach. And the bottom line is that in most classrooms, we have some students who are below grade level, who maybe are missing foundational skills, that they really need to help them to make connections. And so that is remediation where we're looking at closing skill gaps. And ideally, it's not nice when there is a separate time and space for remediation, or intervention. But knowing that that is not always the case, I recommend splitting the math block into three components, and pretty much equal in time. If you can work it, I mean, you know, it depends on if we have a 40 minute block, maybe we have to, you know, move things around a little bit. But if we can break these up evenly, I like to start with a guided and focused instruction segment. And this is traditional whole group instruction where we're introducing something new, or we're doing some kind of a quick introduction, and then allowing the students to work in groups. And then the second segment would be where we are able to reteach to the kids who were not understanding what we were just talking about in whole group, they seem to be missing a few of the pieces. And while the teacher really teaches, maybe the rest of the students are at centers or stations depending on what we want to call them. And then in the third segment, we have a spot designated for the teacher to do remediation or intervention for students to have significant skill gaps. And so that way, we built it right into the math block where the teacher can fill those gaps. And then other students are at centers. And look, it's possible that sometimes we have the same students in reteaching, and remediation. And that happened. And you know what the benefit there is that that student is getting a lot of small group time with the teacher, they're getting a lot more individualized instruction that is meeting their needs. And so if we look at splitting this up, and maybe we do this four days a week, maybe this is not the the math block all five days a week, maybe we just do this four days a week, and then we do something different on the last day. But this helps to ensure that we're able to get all of these key components in and it also helps to make sure that we don't just use the entire time for whole group instruction of the teacher are talking at the students because most likely if let's say I split this into 15 minute segments, it If the kids didn't get it in the first 15 minutes, they're probably not going to get it. If you spent another 30 minutes talking at them, your best bet is probably to just stop it. And then reteach in small group in a different way, using a video with song a different manipulative, or whatever it is, right. But we know that typically just doing the same thing longer, slower, louder, that doesn't really reach kids.

Thank you for mentioning that, because that was exactly what was in my head, right? How long do you sit there and think that you're teaching effectively, we can't spend longer than 1015 minutes with a whole group and think that it's going to stick and then those reteaching groups, you can't just repeat what you just said, right? Because that's exhaustion for teachers, like when you have to continue to just say the same thing over and over. And we know we have to do that sometimes. But that's just a layer of mental fatigue that we just all encounter. And we're like, why are they getting it? Because we haven't changed what we're doing. And maybe that would be a little bit of a refresh, rather than just saying the same words again, to a smaller group of people, something that

definitely not going to be learning anything if they've tuned you out at that point as well. Okay, so you know, we like to think about paring back, as well, as we're talking about minimalism. So if you could remove something altogether from math programs around the world, what would you get rid of Naomi?

So a lot of math programs still include drilled Fact Fluency, and timed testing. And we can definitely pull those out. There's been more research in the past decade or so that shows that that is not effective, that all of these components where we're essentially forcing memorization should be pulled out of math programs, because we know that when students memorize, it's getting stored into their working memory. And as student, as soon as students experience stress and anxiety, especially if we think about testing anxiety, that working memory shuts down. And so they can't recall any of that stuff that they worked so hard to memorize. And so if we will allow our students to do more of the thinking and to be more actively engaged, they're going to store things in different parts of the brain. And they will actually do better on the standardized tests and chapter tests than just forcing them to memorize it. And so when I talked about the math block, breaking it into these components, when the teacher is reteaching, or remediating the rest of the students could be at math centers, and that is a great time to incorporate fluency, that it doesn't necessarily have to be a separate thing that we do. And actually, sometimes when we make it a separate thing, students don't generalize that information and pull it over into the math block, especially students with disabilities, and have a hard time generalizing that. So if we better incorporate it into the math block by making centers about fluid flow and see, then the center's are fun and engaging. They're working on a critical skill that you know, everybody needs, and yazar, they're more likely to remember it when they need it. So there's a great book by Jenny Bay, Williams and Gina clean, called math fact fluency. And it is full of games, there's even a companion website where you can download some of these games for free. And so depending on the grade level, and where you're at, in the year, what your students need to work on with fluency. There's different games that address different aspects of it. We can also get rid of the quote unquote homework book, I've used math programs that had a separate workbook that was like just meant to be sent home. And were like the students were supposed to do multiple pages, or like the page that went with the day's lesson for homework. And I think that we can toss that out as well. There's been a lot of frustration around that. I'm sure a lot of teachers have experienced that where you send that home. And the parents don't know how to teach that concept, the way that it was taught at school. And so they almost derailed the teaching, by showing it in the way that they learned it growing up and not the way that the teacher showed it, and it can cause them with frustration, not just with the parents, but with the students alike. But my teacher said this, right. And they, they don't like this did this chord. So instead, we can look at minimalizing homework, instead of two pages of problems, maybe there's just one good problem. And they can solve it in different ways, or really show their thinking behind it. Or maybe we can flip the class classroom. And it can be a video of the teacher lecture, since we maybe don't want to do that. We don't want to use our whole group time for that. We could send that video home for older students, let them watch that at home, maybe take their notes at home, and then do the problem solving in class where they can get that just in time support that they need.

That's awesome. I love that. And before we let you go, Naomi, we do want to do a pair down pointer with you if possible. So what we would like is to hear a tip from you a strategy maybe, about how we can pare down or be really effective or minimalist. You know, we've been talking about math today. But it doesn't have to be in the realm of math, it could just be generally in life.

So if I think about math programs, I know myself as a teacher, a lot of teachers that I work with now, are very overwhelmed by everything in the math curriculum. And so my pointer would be that you don't have to use everything that a publisher put out there. Even if your district or your school tells you that you have to use an adopted materials, that's fine. You don't have to do every activity that's in there. You don't have to do every worksheet that's in there. You don't have to use every resource. Be picky about what you want to use, because choosing a single great resource or problem or page is going to be better than making students do it all. Awesome. That's a perfect pair down point. Thank you, Naomi.

This episode is sponsored by Edmonds Out Enterprises, fostering acceptance of children and adults with autism in our schools and communities through knowledge and understanding.

Be sure to join Tammy and Christine and guests for more episodes of the minimalist educator podcast. They would love to hear about your journey with minimalism, connect with them at plans EPLS on Twitter or Instagram. The music for the podcast has been written and performed by Gaia Moretti.