Do you want your students to engage more authentically in math? You might consider implementing a math workshop framework, which encourages students to build their math skills through discussion, routines, and classroom community.
But not all math workshops are created equal. They are susceptible to the barriers we often come up against in our classrooms, like homogenization, and rigid texts that don’t work for the students in front of you.
Today we are joined by Jennifer Lempp. Jennifer is a director in the Office of School Support in Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia. She has taught at both the elementary and middle school levels and has served as a math coach. Jennifer explains the benefits of a math workshop framework, and how to build a joyful math workshop in your classroom that is welcoming and enjoyable to students.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Steph: I'd love to start by just getting to know a little bit more about your background and what brought you to the work that you do.
Jennifer: Sure. So I started teaching back in the nineties, and I think about what brought me to education was a roundabout way. I was the person who was playing school with my stuffed animals and my cats and my dogs. But when I went to college, I actually tried everything other than education and ultimately said, I really do need to just follow my passion and start taking those education classes. When I started to teach, I was teaching in the elementary grades, and I'll tell you, math was just not a class that I enjoyed teaching. It's not what brought me into education. It was not a place where I found satisfaction or success. It was pretty frustrating actually. I felt like I was really going home each day feeling more defeated after teaching math, and I started to really think about where I was feeling success.
And I started to notice that where I was working with students in my reading class and writing, I saw some joy in them. I saw smiles. I saw them feeling like they had access to the material, and I really started to think about what I was doing differently in math. And ultimately it was that I was teaching in a very traditional way. I had some amazing teachers that I knew that they cared about me. I knew they obviously made me want to become a teacher. However, math was very traditional then. And so I turned around and taught in a very traditional way. It's really all I knew. And so I really started to think about what I could do differently and started using different formats, different lesson plan templates, so to speak. And ultimately, I realized that if I was truly going to meet the needs of students, I couldn't follow one kind of lesson plan template each and every day. I needed to think more flexibly.
I needed to really think about what my students needed, what the content was, what they had had in that content before. And so I started using what, now I'm calling the math workshop model, but back then it was just math that kept me sane, math that kept kids sane, math that started to make me smile and in a teaching practice that I felt like was sustainable too. Teaching's hard, it's hard work. There's a lot of planning that goes into it. And ultimately, I needed something that I could still do each and every day without also driving myself into the ground. So really what brought me here is the idea of trying to make math class a better place for kids and a better place for teachers. I just want more kids to see themselves successful in math class, and I want teachers to feel like successful teachers of math, which is definitely something I was lacking in those first couple years of teaching.
Steph: Yeah. I love this personal journey that led you to the math workshop. I think that's how so many of us often end up in our jobs and our careers is we avoided the thing we always were told that we were supposed to do, the thing we always said that we'd be good at. So I really like that. It sounds like you followed your intuition to the... So talk to me a little bit more about what exactly makes a math workshop.
Jennifer: Sure. I feel like in education, if you're around long enough, buzzwords come, they go, they come back around sometimes just repackaged under a different name and having 20 plus years now in education while math workshop is the term that we're using, really, ultimately it comes down to a place where there's best practices in math. So when I consider math workshop, I think about starting really strong. I think about first impressions. And first impressions matter a lot. And so every one of our math workshop, the structures, there are three different structures that I really move in and out of throughout my units. I start with a number sense routine, something that's really engaging, something that is accessible to kids, something that will get them to talk in that first five to 10 minutes of class.
If we can really get them talking in that first five to 10 minutes, I feel like we're going to be able to capture their voice and get them to engage in the rest of the class. And if we start with that first five to 10 minutes being some kind of really boring, difficult, impossible feeling problem, we're going to shut a lot of kids down in the first five to 10 minutes.
Steph: Well, hearing you say we open up talking and sharing, I think back to myself as a student, I wouldn't think, Oh, we're about to do math. It really, it would set me up for a much more open conversation.
Jennifer: Yes. Yes. And I feel like when we capture that in the first five to 10 minutes, we hook them. When you get hooked in a book, when the book is really great in the beginning and you don't want to put it down, you can't wait to read the rest. We want to hook them in the first five to 10 minutes of our math class. And really from there, it's making some decisions as the teacher, the teacher autonomy there of do my kids really need this whole group lesson, is what I'm going to explore with my students good for everybody. So sometimes I'm going to do a whole group lesson, and then sometimes I'm going to realize that my kids really have such varied needs when it comes to this, and I'm going to approach this differently. I'm going to get kids into some small groups. I'm going to be able to help build their confidence in some small groups. I'm going to get to know them a little bit better in small group.
So then after that, while I'm working in small groups with kids, other kids need to be doing some really powerful math because we don't have time right to waste. So learning stations, I know some people call them centers or partner games, it's really the same thing. But learning stations that are really engaging, powerful ways of learning, manipulatives, a hands on experience, something where they can explore and be creative, where there's some play, there's some enjoyment there. And then wrapping everything up with a really solid reflection.
Steph: Yeah. So your presentation at, well, for those listing, we're in Los Angeles right now for this year's NCTM conference, and you have a presentation coming up about building math workshops that are welcoming and accessible to every student, not just a select few. So you touched on a little bit what makes a good math workshop, and I want to back up just a little bit. What makes a math workshop inaccessible and feel unapproachable to students?
Jennifer: That's a great question because when I first started thinking about math workshop, I really thought that it was the math workshop approach itself that would make it accessible, that would bring about joy. And as I work with teachers and we hit some of these different barriers, I feel like sometimes we go into it with the intention of math workshop being that joyful place for students, a place where they can explore and be creative. But sometimes I feel like we can hit a roadblock when we keep students in certain groups, when we have the misconception that students need to be in groups that are like groups. We really want some heterogeneous groups of students. We want to be able to have kids see different strategies from students. So while there are times that we're going to be focusing on a misconception in a small group, while there are times that we might be focusing on helping to build their skills, there's other opportunities there that can sometimes be missed.
I think another time when we might not have as much success with math workshop, it's when we are trying to force a fit with some type of textbook rather than really owning or having the autonomy to make some choices about what our students might need and be able to make that a place of play and exploration, creativity and pushing that productive struggle as well. Teaching kids, it's okay that we are going to be doing some of this challenging math. And so I see sometimes where math workshop isn't such a great place for kids when we either try to simplify it and make it really easy, or we are following some textbook word for word or page by page that might not meet everyone's needs.
Steph: And moving on from that, what are some key ingredients that make a really successful and engaging math workshop?
Jennifer: I think one part is that the key is starting strong and ending strong. I think when we make that really powerful first impression with an engaging number sense routine, that is a game changer. When I say number sense routine, there are so many out there right now that we can use, not that boring old warmup that we used to do many years ago. Things like number talks, things like would you rather, or a splat, things like those estimation mysteries. Those are great ways to start our day. And then always wrapping up with that reflection. We want to close just as strong. And while reflections aren't necessarily always quite as engaging as those number sense routines, there is a way to vary the product so that we can really learn about what kids, what they know, what they're thinking about, the connections that they're making, and then use that reflection time to also help make some instructional decisions for the next day.
So I think starting strong and ending strong is key. And I would also say another key ingredient is to go slow to go fast. If you are a traditional teacher like I was, don't try to take on everything and have a million stations and think that this is going to go perfectly. Go slow, take on a little piece, try out some number sense routines, try a learning station, pull one group and see how that feels. Don't take everything on, on day one because when it doesn't feel right, we might go back to some of those traditional ways of instruction rather than just taking our time to get it right.
Steph: I love that. Go slow to go fast. So for anyone listening who won't have the chance to hear your presentation, you also have a book out aptly titled Math Workshop. So for educators who are really interested in bolstering their math workshops, what would they find in this book?
Jennifer: So I try really hard to have this book be a little bit of inside of my brain, but also just speaking to teachers. It's almost like the instructional coach that's side by side with you as you're trying this out. In the book, you'll see each of the three structures and how to walk through that step by step, as well as how to launch math workshops. So a first 20 days to really get all of those routines and procedures down pat, that's in chapter two. And then biting off a little bit more in terms of the components of Math Workshop, you can peel back the onion of what is a learning station, what makes for a quality learning station? What are some different opportunities for reflection? What could those look like? As well as what do we do in a focus lesson that's whole group versus maybe in small group.
Jennifer Lempp is a director in the Office of School Support in Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia. She has taught at both the elementary and middle school levels and served as a math coach. In addition, Jennifer has facilitated professional development at the local, state, and national levels and is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescence Mathematics. She is currently enrolled in an Educational Leadership doctoral program at the University of Virginia and will earn her EdD in Administration and Supervision. Jennifer is a mother of three children: Mason, Claire, and Sophia. She enjoys biking, hiking, and kayaking with them and her husband on the weekends.