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Welcome fellow Recovering Traditionalists to Episode 153: Virtual Math Summit Preview: Tips for Creating Student-Centered Classrooms

When I get emails and comments on the YouTube channel that are THANK YOUs it always brightens my day. If anything I’ve done has helped you and your students out, please email in and let us know.  It’s info@buildmathminds.comThis week’s positivity comes from Deirdre and it’s a throwback from last year’s Virtual Math Summit.  Deirdre commented this in the chat during one of the sessions: “OMG!! These resources will be so helpful to myself as an interventionist, and to my teachers whom I support with Tier 1 instruction and targeted small groups. THANK YOU!!” The 2024 Virtual Math Summit is coming at the end of February and we will have lots more great sessions with resources and ideas you can use right away in your classroom.  The free registration gives you 10 days to access and watch this year’s sessions. We do have a VIP access for the summit which gives you access to this year’s sessions through the end of March.  Or if you’d like to access last years, along with the other 6 years of summits, you can become a member of the Build Math Minds PD site.  Information about all 3 options is available by going to 

This week’s episode is our first preview of some of the sessions from the upcoming 2024 Virtual Math Summit.  I can’t believe we are already at this time of year!  For the next few weeks I’ll be sharing snippets from some of the summit sessions.  If you haven’t signed up yet you can go to to register for the 10-day free access to the sessions.  This year we have 24 amazing sessions that will start being released on February 24.  Go to to get the details and click on the Speaker link at the top to see all the sessions we will be offering on February 24th and 25th.

This week, I’ve curated snippets from 4 sessions that each talked about the importance of creating a student-centered math classroom.  Each session is different in their focus but each gives us insights into why it’s so important and how we can do it.

One of the biggest movements in just the past few years has been Building Thinking Classrooms.  Last year at the Virtual Math Summit we had Peter Liljedahl, the author of BTC, do a session but this year I am so excited to have a teacher from here in Idaho who has been transforming her classroom into a Thinking Classroom do a session about her advice on getting started Building Thinking Classrooms.  Now even though she is sharing her experience in 1st and 2nd grade, this session is great for anyone interested in creating a Student-Centered Classroom and one of the best ways to do that is by building a Thinking Classroom.  Here is Tammy McMorrow sharing just one of the important pieces to Building Thinking Classrooms.

“…So how do I begin to build an elementary thinking classroom?  We’re back to our question. We use thinking tasks, just like we just said. And now we’re going to focus on putting students into visibly random groups of two at the K-2 level or three at third grade and up. So each time my students do a task around the room I’m going to randomize. So I do a new random grouping for each task and at my level I’m doing groups of K-2. This creates opportunities for knowledge mobility. So if Grayson is always with the same student every time he does math, his knowledge is contained. But when the groups are random, his knowledge is moving around the room. I’m also going to speak to the fact of how using an efficient system is important when you randomizing but let’s first start with some reasons why visibly random groups are important.  For example Equity. I’m going to share some thoughts from Peter because his thoughts are always worth sharing. He says that random groups are about Equity. When he asks students why they like random groups they say, ‘The teacher thinks we’re all capable,’ and that really resonates with me because when I spend minutes upon minutes upon minutes organizing who’s going to be with who based on academic needs or behavioral/social needs I’m doing it because I don’t trust them. I mean if I’m being fully honest, it’s cuz I don’t trust them. But when I randomize them, I am sending a different message. I’m sending the message that I trust you. Peter also says that strategic grouping and social grouping are basically ineffective to get students to think. And he says students are more likely or highly likely to offer an idea.  Every student enters the situation thinking that they can contribute. Empathy is also important when it comes to visibly random groups.  He says that students stop caring who they’re with and I would echo that.  He says community forms, empathy is unlocked, group work starts to look different. Kids aren’t just patient and tolerant they start to care about learning of others not just their own and the social barriers come down. Also he says that diversity is not a burden for us to bear, it’s a strength when in random groups. Teachers should not assign rules because students will use roles as an excuse not to think. So in other words we don’t say ‘Hey you be the Recorder and you be THIS and you be THAT.’ I know as an adult learner I am very much likely going to take an excuse not to think when I’m put in roles.  So that is very much true.  And I mentioned that systems are important so I’m going to talk through my system…” 

Latrenda Knighten is the President-Elect of The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  Her session is all about providing Windows and Mirrors in math class.  Mirrors give students the opportunity to see themselves as doers of mathematics and Windows provide real-world connections to mathematics.  To create a truly Student-Centered math classroom you need to put your actual students at the center.  Often textbooks create tasks that are for the “general population” of students but your students are unique so it’s essential to find ways to provide those Windows & Mirrors for your group of students.  Throughout her session Latrenda bases her suggestions on how to create Windows & Mirrors on the 5 Equity-based Mathematics Teaching Practices.  Here she is sharing one idea to help Challenge Spaces of Marginality:

“…A couple more strategies to think about challenging spaces of marginality, when we think about those equity-based teaching practices is bringing in children’s literature. And so we have some reminders, or some things, usually there’s a problem that the character is solving or there’s something they need to overcome.  So it’s a great way to teach persistence. Definitely a great way to build student agency, foster student identity, and promote access for all students in mathematics. And we can use this as a tool as teachers to implement those equitable mathematics instruction practices by promoting positive mathematical identities as our students begin to see themselves as doers of mathematics. So what are some of those benefits?  Obviously we can introduce students to characters and settings from various Multicultural settings and allow students to view themselves as doers of mathematics. But one of the wonderful benefits is, by using authentic children’s literature we can help students experience the wonder, joy, and beauty of mathematics and emphasize reasoning and sense-making.  If you’ve never had the opportunity to explore the award-winning books from the Mathical Book Prize please go to the Mathical site, look at those award-winning books cuz the great thing about the Mathical books it’s supported by the literacy and the mathematics community so you have good literature but that also uplifts mathematics. So the first selections of children’s literature have the power to challenge who students see as mathematicians and what counts as doing mathematics. These are just a few of my favorites, who as I mentioned earlier when I talked about the Google search when I was working on a project with my students for famous female mathematicians and so I’m going to share two more activities using one of the real life former mathematicians that was featured in several books. And you know, as you can see I’m talking about Katherine Johnson. And so one of the neat things is that a lot of the children’s books is you have authors who have written books that appeal to students at different grade bands or grade levels so you can bring that person’s story to different students using language that is applicable for your students’ learning, for your students’ developmental level. So just a reminder of Katherine Johnson we know that she’s instrumental in her contributions to the Space Program…” 

One of the foundations of creating a Student-Centered math classroom is using their understandings or misunderstandings to help guide your instruction.  You no longer just do the next lesson in the textbook, instead you make instructional decisions based on what you are seeing.  Yes, you have a plan for lessons, but that plan typically has multiple pathways you can take to get to the end result of helping your students build their understanding of the math concept.  Ed Nolan’s session at the 2024 Virtual Math Summit gives you tips on how to Plan and React to Student Thinking.  Here’s a little sneak peek into his session: 

“…And again this is thinking ahead and thinking about, ‘Okay so if I see 1/16 what might I do? If I see 3/4 what might I do?’ So what I want you to think about is what solutions do you expect and then what questions might you ask a student if you see 1/4 as their answer? If you see 1/16 as their answer? Because what you need to do is to start to think about ‘okay I understand students might get some of these incorrect answers. What will I do as the teacher if I see that happening?’ And that’s where the planning gets to a new level and a new depth because you can start to think about what are students going to do, both correct and incorrect, and create pathways in your lessons so that your lesson planning doesn’t have just a linear sequence but rather it has little offshoots based on what you see in the class. Whether you see only a few students using it, whether you see many students doing it, it allows you to think about options that you’re going to take based on what you see in the classroom, based on the evidence that you collect, based on the questions that you asked. And here you see how that TQE process works together. The Task lends itself to multiple answers and multiple representations. Your Questions get to understand better how your students are making sense of that task. And then that Evidence that you collect from your questions helps to guide what your decision making is within the lesson. And so what you’re doing here is creating this hypothetical learning trajectory knowing what your students may or may not do. What we need to understand is that our planning needs to include high cognitive level questions to create the learning environment where our students are thinking critically, where our students are making sense of it. And this is why the planning role is such an important element in effective questioning, because sometimes some of those questions need to be thought of ahead of time so that you have them ready for when you’re going to teach the lesson. And so what we have here is kind of a plan, a model, of how we can use questioning to really focus on student thinking. The first thing you need to do is to do the problem yourself. Think about: are there multiple question and response pathways? Are there different answers that students are going to get? I know I’ve used tasks where in the past all the students got the correct answer, which is really reassuring as the teacher but what it does is it limits. It doesn’t create these multiple pathways that I’m looking for. So I’ve moved to wanting tasks that do more, that are broader or more open-ended, have multiple ways both of representing the solution and multiple things, multiple errors that students might make that I can learn and my students can learn in order to deepen their understanding of our concepts…”

Mona Iehl reminds us in one part of her session, Talk Less to Establish a Strong Culture of Math, that as we start to center students in the classroom we aren’t just centering the same students.  We need to ensure all students see themselves as mathematicians and one of the ways we can do that is by helping them raise their perceived math status.

“…Who answers the questions? Now, what we know is that often in math the people who participate are the same. The same five or six students. And what research has shown is that those students actually have what’s called High Math Status. Everyone in the class knows those are the people you go to for help.  Those are the people who know, they know what’s going on, they answer all the questions they have High Math Status.  And then we have students that have Low Math Status. They rarely participate, they never talk, they don’t interact in their groups, and maybe they don’t do their homework or they don’t do their work etc.  Here is a quote from Choosing To See which is the book written by Pamela Seda, where she’s talking about Math Status.  So it says ‘low status students were observed to be less likely to talk, interact, and engage with their classmates while working in a collaborative setting the decreased academic achievements of those perceived as less competent should not be surprising.’ So the decreased academic achievements of those children, she’s saying isn’t surprising, right? If they don’t interact, they don’t talk, they don’t engage, because they have a low math status from both their peers and themselves, well of course they’re not going to achieve academically. So the question then becomes, How?  How do we get these students to interact?  How do we raise their math status?  And my favorite thing to do is get their voice heard.  Make sure that there is equity in the amount each person participates and talks.  And so one way that we can do this is within Math Talk Chain. I suggest that you try these first in smaller groups so not a whole group.  But let’s say you had four people in a math group and they are discussing the strategies that are up on the board.  The Math Talk Chain is where whoever speaks must acknowledge what the person before them said and then add on to it or connect their idea to the others idea. Right?  So maybe the first person says something like ‘I think Rose’s strategy is most efficient’ then I would say ‘You think Rose’s strategy is most efficient, I agree because all she had to do was one step.  She just added the 2 to get to the friendly number and it made it a lot easier.’  And then the next person would say ‘You guys think…’ You know, and it builds, right.  So that’s a way to get every student’s voice heard.  Even if a student cannot add an eloquent thought of their own yet, right, they’re not yet at an understanding where they can describe it eloquently, they can repeat what the person before them said, therefore raising their Math Status.  Research shows, how do you raise math status?  You get students’ voice out there. You get them seen by their peers as an expert and the way you can do that is by giving them opportunities to talk and sometimes that starts with just revoicing or repeating…” 

So those are just 4 of the upcoming sessions that will be at the 2024 Virtual Math Summit, starting on February 24th.  I hope you got some ideas on ways to make a more Student-Centered Math Classroom but to get the full impact of these ideas make sure you register to watch the entire session.  Go to to get your spot at the summit. 

Until next week my Fellow Recovering Traditionalists, keep Building Math Minds.

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As you start off the school year, I want you to keep in mind what is really important as we're trying to teach mathematics to our students.