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Dedicated to Teachers

On the Podcast: A Conversation Between Marilyn Burns and Lucy Calkins


Today on the podcast we’re excited to share a special conversation between Marilyn Burns and Lucy Calkins about Marilyn’s new digital math interview tool, Listening to Learn. They discuss the importance of listening, a value that is central to both Marilyn’s and Lucy’s work.

Marilyn Burns is one of today’s most highly respected mathematics educators. Over the course of almost sixty years, Marilyn has taught children, led professional development sessions, spoken at conferences, contributed to professional journals, written a dozen books for children, and created more than twenty professional development publications for teachers and administrators. She is also a co-author of Do The Math, which is now available from Heinemann.

Lucy Calkins is the Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. She is also the author or coauthor—and series editor—of the reading, writing, and phonics Units of Study series, which are integral to classroom life in tens of thousands of schools around the world.

Here now is Marilyn and Lucy.


Below is a full transcript of this episode.

Lucy: Well, I've been waiting for this product of Marilyn's for a long time. She's been consumed with it. Working on it for years. I'm very excited that it's coming out now. I guess one of the reasons that I feel a kinship to it, is that my first book was, Lessons from a Child. I remember someone introducing me long ago, 30 years ago and saying "This is Lucy Calkins, she's the author of Lessons from a Child." And I said "Therein lies the story." Because ultimately, this is about taking lessons from children.

I think we all remember Don Graves, after that big study that we did all those years ago. Don graves took all of our data and went off to Scotland to... Marilyn, you may not know this story, but he went off to Scotland to spend a year on sabbatical, writing about the children that we studied. He and I studied together for two years and he had all this data all around his Shepherd's hut, where he was living for that year. The shepherd in the next hut, came over to visit him. All this data, all this student work everywhere and said "Don, what are you doing?" And Don says, "I'm writing about children." And the shepherd said "Don, wouldn't you rather write a love story?" And Don said, "This is a love story." So Marilyn, I've known the product's coming, but help me to understand what it really is and what the role of interviewing is that you're so excited about.

Marilyn: The story about Don Graves is wonderful because his book has been on my shelf for years. Cause even though I'm been completely immersed in the math world, his work spoke to me because his work was about listening to children. I have a closet that I'm almost terrified to open because of that, some student work that I revisit from time to time, to help my thinking. So it's all about, for me, understanding how students think, how students make sense of math, how they come into the world of numeracy, the way you're anxious to help kids come into the world of literacy. For years, I've been honing my teaching. I've been listening to students. I've been looking at their work and then when I started having conversations with students, I realized how many times I made erroneous assumptions, how many things I missed. I learned how much talking I was doing as the teacher, rather than listening to students to get their stories. I have, maybe similar to Don Graves, I've fallen in love with the process.

Lucy: I don't think I would really know. I guess I would imagine if it's a kid's doing, 9 plus 14, you might say, how did you go about solving that problem? Is that the main question you're asking? Or what is it you ask?

Marilyn: The main question is, we ask a question. It could be a problem, like what is 9 plus 14? It could be a word problem. It could be a problem where I ask them to compare two fractions and a variety of kinds of problems, but they're all mental math, no paper, no pencil. I listen to the answer, I never give feedback as to whether the answer is correct or incorrect, but the next line is, how did you figure that out? Or how do you know, tell me more. So they tell me more, I zip it up and I listen and give them time holding their attention, curious, and not only curious, but generous to really believe that they are trying to make sense and communicate with me. So we have a conversation about a problem that could be as simple as how much is 9 plus 14? But it's their thinking that I'm paying attention to.

Lucy: We talk about architecture of mini lessons and architecture of conferences in the teaching of writing. Is there a predictable architecture to how a math interview would go?

Marilyn: Yes. The way we structured listening to learn, we have 10 interviews. Each interview has 12 questions. There are word problems sprinkled throughout there are genres of questions. But the protocol is, asks the question, hear the answer, then follow up with, how did you figure it out? And then listen. The protocol is fairly accessible to teachers. The challenge is though the product is called Listening to Learn, the challenge is learning to listen because when a child explains their language is usually imprecise or often imprecise. It's not exactly what I was expecting to hear, but I put that aside and listen to the child. On the program, there's a list of explanations that we have gotten from thousands of kids that we have asked these same questions and you see, is there a match? So you have to not only listen as a teacher, you match it to one of the explanations we gave. And that's the information that Listening to Learn, captures and creates information for you to help you analyze and interpret what the experience was.

Lucy: So Marilyn, in our reading curriculum, we have a skill, like let's say prediction. We basically say that if you're predicting like a second grader, it might sound like this. If you're predicting like a third grader, it sounds like this, a fourth grader... We have a learning progression it's called where we sort of show how a skill like prediction, looks for grade two, three, four. But in any case, then a teacher is able to listen and say, okay, that's kind of like a grade two production. Let's say they're predicting what's going to happen. Then a higher level prediction would be not only what's going to happen, but how it's going to happen. A big way that teachers learn how to teach is they listen to think, where on the learning progression is that? Then they look at what's the next step. Then that's what they teach. Is that basically what you've done?

Marilyn: Well, it's similar in a way. First of all, the progression that informs Listening to Learn are the numerical reasoning strategies that we want kids to have access to. That progression we provide to teachers. For example, when you're counting, little kids will count on often using their fingers. If they were doing 4 plus 9, which is smaller than the number you suggested, they might start with nine and count on 10, 11, 12, 13. That's appropriate when students are learning and that's appropriate when the numbers are small, but it's not an appropriate strategy later on in the progression. We have a progression of strategies that we want teachers to be familiar with and we present them. But we've also found the numbers matter. 4 plus 9 is a problem that gives us information from students at a certain grade level. It's not something I'm going to ask a fifth grader.

Well, I might. I might say, how would you explain this to a second grader? But basically the numbers matter. The same progression of strategies exists, but the problems that we ask kids to solve depend on the capacity they have for their own number sense. We see some strategies like the counting on strategy, something that we're not even interested in capturing about fourth and fifth graders. But we have things like using 25 as a benchmark, which isn't even accessible to young children.

So this progression, it's not a lot of strategies. For addition and subtraction, there are basically nine numerical reasoning strategies that we explain and present to teachers and there are four different interviews numbers within 10, 20, 1o0 and 1,000, all mentally. So the problems are problems that are reasonable to do mentally. I'm not going to say to a child, okay. Figure out in your head, how much has to be 127 plus 752 plus 521. We say, okay, if I had 825, how much more do I need to add to it, to get to 1,000. That's possible mentally, and that's something which we'll use some of those strategies, like benchmarks of 29 using multiples of 10 as benchmarks. The strategies are the essence of this and the children's reasoning give us access into the strategies that they are able to use.

Lucy: So what your product… it’s interesting again, I'm kind of comparing it to the two reading assessments because in reading assessments, we have to put forward a passage with questions about it. You can take these things and apply them to any book, but to assess it's helpful to have a passage and to have watched a lot of kids work with the same passage. Basically your tool includes the problems you would have kids do. Then the ways to make sense of what kids do with those problems and how that can inform where you think this child is in a progression of math work. Is that sort of…

Marilyn: Choosing the right passage is important. If you choose a passage that's too difficult, you're not going to learn it, or if you choose the passage that is too easy. In each interview, the first three questions are kind of benchmark questions. If the child can't answer the three questions correctly and with some confidence and explain their reasoning, then we dropped down an interview. Because, it's interesting. For addition, we have four interviews. If I'm in a typical third grade class, I will typically wind up using three of the interviews with students. I may start with a particular one thinking, numbers within 20 makes sense. Then I'll adjust after the first three, that guides that. In one way, I think I've taken all that thinking that I've done intuitively when I first worked interviewing and then made it say, wait a second, I got to explain my thinking and make this accessible, so teachers will have access to it, be inspired by it, be excited by it and learn about their students.

Lucy: How do you imagine teachers using this tool? Is it beside the bed? Is it in the classroom? Is it in a summer week, long Institute? Or how will it be used?

Marilyn: My entire career, as yours in a major way, is all about professional learning. Basically I see in one way, the tool is a way to enhance your own professional learning about math. Here's my dream, whatever assessment you're using for reading to find out about your students before you start teaching, I don't understand how you can start teaching until you know who your students are, tack this 10 minutes of math on the end. You'll learn about your students mathematically as well. I know that teachers who are comfortable and find it important to interview their kids in reading, they already know about the process. They've already bought into and accepted the benefits of the process. I now want them to see that same benefit in the world of mathematics.

Lucy: So this tool that you've developed, a district could buy it on Monday and on Tuesday, a teacher could take a piece of it and work with a kid.

Marilyn: They could, because some teachers are the kind of “I'll dive in, just do it.” Some teachers are trepidatious, I want to think about it. We have videos. We have learning labs for teachers. We have every access point in. You can learn by yourself. You can learn with colleagues, you can just barge in and you can look at tons and tons of video, and you can read the blogs that my colleague Lynn and I are writing and producing.

Lucy: Ideally, it would be that there's a day or two of professional development at the start of the year where people are using the resources that you've put forward to kind of immerse themselves. Ideally, a coach spends more time on this and then decides which parts of it go for which groups of your teachers and so forth. Then there's a day of professional development where people use your resources to do some PD, and then they begin working with their math kids doing some of these interviews. I've got another big question. I don't know if you're ready for it, but okay. I do the interview. What does that have to do? I've got a curriculum in math with all these books and stuff. Why am I bothering to assess if I've already got a curriculum that is non flexible?

Marilyn: Well, my snarky answer is we're teaching students. We're not teaching the curriculum. Students first. Your curriculum to me is a default path of the content and the goals for your instruction. I've never met a teacher who didn't enhance, rethink, back up and teach. They have to make it their own. Whatever program they're using, the program is there to guide their instruction.

Lucy: Right, so you said you're talking to teachers about how to adapt and infuse more into their curriculum.

Marilyn: Also here's my goal. We would talk about inclusive and including all children. What I mean by that is the lessons that I offer, I have two criteria. They need to be accessible to all students. I will know from these interviews whether I need to do some work, perhaps ahead of time with a small group or how I might have to adjust it to give access for all opportunity for kids to go further, opportunities for me to learn who I need to confer with. I think that it's very important, is to making that decision.

Lucy: What about the whole idea of ability groups and all of that?

Marilyn: I am interested in building a community of learners. So there are things that I want to do together. When I think about your mini lessons, they're really something you do with the whole class. Kids will tune in, in some way. We, in the math world, have our number talks, where we do something short to give everybody access from which I'm looking and learning, so that when they go off to their work, when you go off to do the writing work and we go off to their menu work, or their math workshop, we know who to confer with.

Sometimes I'm very leery of ability groups and labeling students. I'm more interested in giving them access to the thinking that I want them to do, and in a way that makes sense. That's where the numbers matter. If I'm playing a game with kids, whether I tell them to use four digit numbers or two digit numbers, it's the thinking, it's the strategic thinking, it's the making sense that is the essence to all of it. Teaching is not easy. Sometimes people think teaching math is easy, cause the answer is as right. But the answer is just the starting place, you got to understand how these kids are reasoning.

Lucy: Do you see yourself… I mean, I feel as if what you really will want to have is communities of math coaches coming together. I really like my office hours. Once a month I have these office hours and people just come on and ask any old question. I feel as if, with this product, you should have office hours so that people who are trying it can come. Because I just think that the conversations that will happen between schools, and particularly between both the math coaches and then the math specialists, because in some elementary schools now there's teachers who just teach math and science, they become the specialist. I wish that didn't happen, but it is happening.

But I think those teachers could really come to understand the field of math, the world of math, the thinking that a math teacher should be doing, in a way that's what this could give them access to. But I feel like it would be a community of practice for those educators would be just beautiful.

Marilyn: The two things that we've done together when I came in was a guest on your supper club, which was wonderful. And also your Saturday reunion, we had time for teachers to ask me questions and questions were so important for me, to hear the level at which they were concerned. Some very concerned with smaller issues, some very concerned with larger issues. But this is a great idea because I learn from listening to students, I can also learn from listening to teachers.

Lucy: No, it would be a beautiful thing. I do think that the teachers are going to help teach both you and me some of these crosswalks that we've been exploring. Cause I mean, we get together and we try to think about how is it the same and how's it different teaching math and reading and writing. But I think that ultimately the teachers will figure that out and they will come back and say to us, no, you don't realize there's these other things.

Marilyn: We talk here in Listening to Learn about arithmetic. You've heard me say that the third are reading, writing, arithmetic. I wanted to change it to reading, writing, and reasoning. That's what Listening to Learn is all about. But basically we're talking about anything that any adult should be able to do. It's not scary. I hope it's not scary math. I know math is scary to people. This is really, numbers within our grasp and ways to think about numbers in our heads.

Lucy: What grade levels… how low does it go?

Marilyn: It starts with kindergarten or even pre-K. I go up and so pick the last ones are fractions and decimals. It's way up there. Any kid through middle school. I've used this with adult friends of mine and I learned something from them. I say to adults, okay, how do we add 99 plus 99 plus 5. And everybody goes, humph. And I get so many different answers. We ask that in our interview five, but we ask adults. The conversation is just about honoring our own way of thinking.

Lucy: I have to confess that when you were coming on supper club, I worried you'd give me a math problem. We were in the Adirondacks together and you gave me that problem.

Marilyn: I know, and you froze!

Lucy: It was so scary! But heart's pounding, I'm sweating.

Marilyn: But it was so interesting when you got the right answer a particular way. I'll never forget the problem. It was like 99 plus 14. You figured it out, you lined it up in your head, you saw it, you got the right answer. I said, I just went 100 plus 13 light bulb went on 100 as a benchmark. I said, aha. That comes out for us, so kids will develop this. We're very tender. We all have our fears. I've been teaching remotely. And I go, oh, I'm not good enough for this. The kids are wiggling. I see their forehead. I can't hear them. I still teaching nightmares. Every teacher I've met has teaching nightmares. So we're all tender and we have to be there to support each other in the way we want teachers to support their students.

Lucy: But I think what you've made is a tool that really can help people, help teachers to encompass the bigness of teaching math. I think that people make teaching math into a little thing and that this is big, important life work. What I know about teachers is, they they've come into this field because, it's a work of the heart and of the mind because it feels so enormously important and there's ways in which schools can grind people down. I think teachers are looking for ways to recover the majesty of teaching at its finest and at its richest to really be all in, in the profession and in the mission of math and of literacy and of whatever the teaching is. I think your tool is about recovering the scope and grand juror and bigness and depth of teaching math.

Marilyn: I want to inspire teachers to tackle this with curiosity and joy, and then to bring that into their students, and I want them to use the skills they do have. If a teacher feels completely comfortable teaching literacy. What are the things you feel comfortable with? What are the things you love to do? We can do that in math. It's not like math becomes something completely separate and not related to in different and in basic ways, they're the same. We're all about helping kids grow from where they are to where they could be.

Lucy: There was a time when I imagined that I could take on math education, just because so many of the people that work with me are passionate about math. They love math. I do think that the field of math education, it needs some new breadth of energy. It's interesting because you see it in the scholars. When I meet with you and Phil Darrow and others there's this electric energy, but it hasn't encompassed the field in the way that it should. It feels like the scholars are on fire doing this, and sometimes in the field, it's a little more follow the program.

Marilyn: That's why I think I've devoted my whole life to staying in the classroom, going into the classroom and talking to teachers about what I've learned, telling my stories. I think the thing about story, which you began in our conversation is so important that, what do I actually do? Face-to-face with a class of 25 students and you saw that, we were together. We took turns. It was really an incredible impactful day. It was fun, and it was important.

So how do I say to the kids, I am interested in you and together we can do this and what's the, this, it's not just getting the answer. It's not learning how to cross out the zeros divide, subtract, multiply, and bring down it's about thinking reasoning and making sense. Let's get to work.

AU_Burns_Marilyn_AuthorPhoto_9263_041818Marilyn Burns is one of today’s most highly respected mathematics educators. In 1984, Marilyn founded Math Solutions®, an organization dedicated to the improvement of math instruction in Grades K–8. Her book, About Teaching Mathematics, now in its 4th edition, has been widely used for pre-service and in-service teachers. Her other professional books include Welcome to Math Class; Math, Literature, and Nonfiction; Lessons for Algebraic Thinking; Writing in Math Class; and others. Marilyn’s children’s books include classics like The I Hate Mathematics! Book and The Book of Think, and the more recent The Greedy Triangle and Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! Her children’s books have been translated into eight languages.

For her educational contributions, Marilyn received the Ross Taylor/Glenn Gilbert National Leadership Award from the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and the Louise Hay Award for Contributions to Mathematics Education from the Association for Women in Mathematics. She was also inducted into the Educational Publishing Hall of Fame by the Association of Educational Publishers.

Marilyn and a team of Math Solutions® master teachers developed Do The Math, an intervention program that targets on number and operations, and Math Reads, a program that helps teachers use children’s literature for teaching mathematics. Her most recent project, Listening to Learn, is a digital interview tool for grades K–5 based on her previous work on the Math Reasoning Inventory (MRI), for students entering middle school and beyond and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Marilyn continues to teach regularly in the classroom, finding the experience essential to developing and testing new ideas and materials. Learn more about Marilyn’s work at her Marilyn Burns Math Blog, by following her on Twitter @MBurnsMath, and by visiting her Marilyn Burns Math YouTube Channel.

Lucy Calkins 240 Square Headshot HeinemannLucy Calkins is the Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. For more than thirty years, she has led the Project in its dual functions as a think tank, developing state-of-the-art teaching methods, and a provider of professional development, supporting hundreds of thousands of teachers, principals, superintendents, and policy-makers across the country and around the world.
Lucy is the author or coauthor—and series editor—of the reading, writing, and phonics Units of Study series, which are integral to classroom life in tens of thousands of schools around the world. In addition, she has authored scores of professional books and articles. Lucy is also the Robinson Professor of Children's Literature at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she co-directs the Literacy Specialist Program.

Topics: Lucy Calkins, Mathematics, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Literacy, Math, Marilyn Burns, Listening to Learn

Date Published: 04/22/21

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