Getting to Know Your Students as Math Learners

Okay before we start digging into these Get to Know You activities I want to share a little bit of the “why”.

When I first started teaching 5th grade math a few years ago I noticed right away that my students were coming to me with some math baggage, if you will. Both good and bad baggage, but I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to help them unpack it and I wanted to know about their math story, attitude towards math, and how they felt about themselves as a mathematician. So I created some of these resources to do just that!

In my opinion, getting to know your students as mathematicians helps you build a relationship with your students and truly get to know what they need from you as their math teacher. It helps you build a math-focused classroom community that truly values them as mathematicians. It helps you make instructional decisions in terms of grouping and how you structure activities. It’s important, meaningful, and transformative.

So now let’s talk about these activities!

#1: Math Autobiography

This activity is packed full of questions and provides you with a TON of information about your students. More importantly, it gives your students an opportunity to reflect on a variety of questions about their math story, math attitude, goals, and how they learn best! If I don’t have time to do all of the activities this is definitely the one I do because it hits on a lot of things and gives me so much information that I can use!

Here’s a quick breakdown of how this looks in my classroom:

>When I prep this activity as a booklet I make sure to include both mid-year and end-of-year reflection pages. We keep this booklet in a safe place and come back to it throughout the year.

>We work on this activity during the first weeks of school. I have my students complete a few pages each day, over the span of about 5 days.

>Then we debrief by discussing some of the questions at our table groups. One way that I have them debrief that’s a little bit different is I assign each question a number and display it on a slide. Then I give the table groups a die. They roll the die and whatever number it lands on is the question they talk about. We do a few rounds of this, and then wrap it up by having a quick whole-group share out at the end.

>Once they’ve completed the entire autobiography I collect the booklets, read them, and record important takeaways and information about each student on a Student Snapshot page.

#2: Math Mood Survey

Here’s another activity that provides you with a ton of information on how your students really feel about math. Let’s face it, if you teach upper elementary some of our kiddos come to us with some negative feelings about math already. I want to know about that, and I want to use that information to support them as a learner.

Here’s how this activity looks in my classroom:

>First, we quickly go over the statements in the survey. I try to focus on the ones that may need a little bit of an explanation or definition of a word.

>My students complete the survey and then we debrief a little bit.

>A quick and easy way to debrief is by playing “3 corners”. Just like 4 corners but with only 3 options. I pick a few statements to read and then students go to the corner that represents how they answered: agree, sometimes, disagree. Once in their corner they can quickly discuss with someone there why they chose to answer the way they did.

>At the end I collect the surveys, read through them, and use a Classroom Snapshot to record overall takeaways on attitudes towards math, as well as any topics or things I’d like to discuss to help build our classroom community

#3: Math Strengths Reflection

I absolutely LOVE this activity and here’s why. It helps students reflect on strengths they have, and who doesn’t love an activity that allows you to identify things you are good at? It also helps students to identify strengths that support them as mathematicians. It opens up the conversation about the definition of a mathematician and what mathematicians do. This is a working definition that evolves and changes throughout the year.

Here’s how this activity looks in my classroom:

>First, I introduce the activity by describing the purpose, explaining the directions, and how to decide if a trait or action on the sheet is a strength, area for improvement, or a little bit of both.

>Students complete the strength sheet and then reflect using a reflection sheet. I love using the reflection sheet to gain a little bit more information. On the reflection sheet they’re able to organize their strengths and areas for improvement a bit, as well as give me a little more information on their strengths.

>A fun way I plan on celebrating these strengths this year is by making a quick little bulletin board. Once completing this activity I plan on having students write their #1 strength on a piece of paper. Then, I’m going to take a picture of each student holding the paper with their strength. I’ll display these photos on a bulletin board and it will always be there to remind us of our amazing strengths as mathematicians! (this bulletin board is included in the resource if you want to check it out!)

#4: Math Identity Journal

Okay this activity is a little different than the rest, but still super meaningful and insightful. This activity is a little different because it is something you can launch in the beginning of the year and continue to do throughout the year as a daily/weeky/or monthly routine.

Here’s how this activity looks in my classroom:

>The very first thing I do is set up a math identity journal for each student. I have students use a composition notebook and put a “math identity journal” label on the front.

>The next step is pretty easy…we start writing in our journals! I have my students respond to a prompt once a week.

>I present the prompt on a slide at the front of the classroom. Students go to the next page in their journal and jot this prompt down at the top of the page. These prompts address things like math identity and attitude, problem solving + struggle, collaboration, growth mindset, participation + communication, and goals + reflection.

>Then they quietly respond for 10 minutes. I play quiet music and the expectation is that they use this time to quietly reflect and respond. I stress the importance of quality over quantity. I am more interested in what they’re sharing with me over how much they’re sharing. Sometimes the absence of an explanation or a very short explanation gives me a lot of information.

>After responding, sometimes we debrief as a class and sometimes we don’t. I collect the journals, read the responses and write a little note back to them. I jot down any big takeaways I have from their response on their Student Snapshot sheet, and then return their journals by the time we use them again the following week!

I want to wrap it up with this quote because this is one of my why’s for getting to know my students as math learners. Getting to know my math learners and facilitating reflection helps my students develop their math identities. This is what leads to their math agency, which is the real goal. I think this work is so important and can transform your math classroom and classroom community.

But really quick before I completely wrap it up, you’ve done all of these activities so now what? How can you use this information to build relationships with your students, foster a positive classroom community, and inform your instruction?

Here’s some ideas:

  1. Use this information to get to know your students as mathematicians and build relationships. The more you know about your students and their math experiences, the better you can teach them and help them as math learners. AND the more engaged they’ll be in learning from you!
  2. Have a binder with a little snapshot of each student based on the information you’ve gathered from these activities. This is perfect to use when creating groups, during conferences, and just a great “data” point to have to quickly refer to when needed.
  3. Take a pulse of the classroom using this information. You may discover topics that you feel you should talk about whole-group based on the information from these activities. These discussions are great to have during community time or morning meeting.
  4. Keep this information in mind when creating groups or partners in class. It’s so important to not just think about math ability when making groups in class but also math identity and strengths in terms of participation, perseverance, and overall attitude.
  5. Save this information and revisit it often! I think it’s great to revisit some of these activities mid-year and at the end of the year. Not only does this help students and encourage reflection, but it’s also a great way to get an overall idea on how well your classroom community and visions are going…are your students feeling more confident as math learners? Are they having more positive views about math? What trends do you see and what are some areas that you can work on to continue building a positive community of math learners?

Well that’s it. I hope this information was helpful and I hope it encouraged you to get to know your students as math learners in a holistic way! If you have any questions or want to reach out to me, you can always find me on IG @thehappylittleclassroom! I’d love to chat with you about math!

want to check out the actitivies mentioned in this blog post? click here
want more ideas on how to build your classroom community?
check out this resource!

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