Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Guided Math Conferences: A Summer Book Study

Hi BlogFriends!

I have three half-finished blog posts... but this one is "time sensitive," so it's arriving first!

This has been a summer of reading and learning for me. I made a commitment to read five professional books before I returned to school. I may not read all of each of them, but I am reading most of all of them, so I'm considering that a success.
Creative Clips HERE on TpT and Sunglasses by Dots of Fun HERE on TpT

Do you know Brenda at Primary Inspired? I just adore her! She's one of those "can-do"people that makes things happen. This is the second time I have been involved in a Book Study with her--and this is the second time that everything has unfolded perfectly and fallen into place. That gal is a marvel! This summer she has organized a study of the book Guided Math Conferences by Laney Sammons. We're up to chapter three and it's my turn to invite you to join in the discussion!

I enjoyed reading the first two chapters, but when I started reading chapter three, I felt as if Laney Sammons was speaking directly to me! She began the chapter by stating that too often teachers assess their students' mathematical skills in a question-response-evaluation way. "This pattern of interaction reinforces the notion of the teacher as the dispenser of knowledge and the arbiter of what is right..." leaving students to feel "little responsibility for learning or for monitoring their own understanding." OUCH. Guilty as charged. With the implementation of Common Core, we have a responsibility to push students to consider and analyze and question. And while my lessons may be moving away from traditional mathematics instruction and in the direction of more open-ended questions and opportunities for multiple answers... my assessments have barely budged.

Time to re-think. Here's how Sammons describes Guided Math conferences:

Isn't that wonderful? I was so thankful I was underlining with a pencil instead of using a highlighter because I would have ended up with multiple pages colored yellow! So many profound thoughts!

Three pages in, and Sammons had won my heart completely. While she gave numerous compelling reasons for Guided Math conferences--all of them valid--the push to value students as learners and the call to connect with them as an integral part of guiding their mathematical learning were such powerful messages.

Okay. Sold! I was ready to learn more about the structure of Guided Math conferences...

The structure of Guided Math conferences is based on that of writing conferences... with an emphasis on a predictable conversational pattern that encourages mathematical growth and, concurrently, facilitates deeper mathematical discussion.

Essentially, there are four sequential steps to a Guided Math conference:

I had been worried that the text would become filled with complicated jargon that made no sense to me, but as I looked at the list, I found myself thinking: Yes. That sounds logical to me. I'm going to keep reading!

The goal of the conference is find that area where the student can almost do something... and just needs a push (through the conference) to take that next step. It is the conversation that lets us know what support is necessary and how to provide that support to the student. Both teachers and students have a role in the conference. Teachers need to observe, converse, analyze, question and reflect. Students need to demonstrate their thinking as they approach a mathematical task and then engage in a discussion about the work they are doing as mathematicians. The predictable nature of the conference leads to a mathematical collaboration. "So, in effect, the expectation of conferring with a teacher actually shapes the mathematical thinking of students as they work." Sigh. I like Laney Sammons!

Sammons then provides a series of questions that can help a teacher support students in explaining their mathematical thinking with more precision--thus enabling a teacher to guide their mathematical processing even further.

There are many suggestions listed in the book... here is just a sample:
  • What mathematical strategies are you using today?
  • What predictions can you make based on your work?
  • What questions could you ask yourself to help you understand the math better?
  • Are there other ways of expressing/representing this?
Sammons cautions against asking questions for which teachers already have a predetermined answer in mind. This approach can stifle conversation and thinking--on both parts. The goal is to pose authentic and honest questions which will illuminate the student's thinking and allow the teacher to direct further discussion. This is, indeed a "research" (and discovery!) phase that will guide the rest of the interaction.

The research phase shapes the decision phase of the conference. While it is listed as the second step in the process, it actually comes into focus at the same time as the research phase. This is where instructional decisions are beginning to be made. "Weighing what they have learned about their students' strengths and needs and what they know about their mathematics curriculum, teachers decide how to proceed with the conference." I love how Sammons reminds us: You have to know your curriculum to know where to go next with your students!

In this section, Sammons discusses the importance of an "authentic compliment." The generic "good job" isn't helpful here. Instead, students need specific input about their thinking and reasoning.  Positive recognition is an important component of the conference--but only if it helps push the students' thinking along.

Again, the tone of this section makes my heart happy. "Students feel supported and proud of their work when teachers notice and affirm their mathematical growth." It would be easy for students to feel vulnerable under such scrutiny--compounded by the one-on-one format of the conference. Making a decision to search for and recognize things the student has done well helps encourage the student to continue to be an active participant in the conference process.

Teachers then need to decide on a teaching point and determine how best to teach the concept. Teaching has to be concise and well-thought out. And, for the record, telling isn't teaching. Decisions about instructional process need to be made "on the spot" before the teaching begins.

This is the "implantation" phase of the conference. Observations and conversations have narrowed the focus. Further consideration has led to a teaching point and a plan for instruction. At this point, "teachers teach a short lesson, scaffolding the learning of their students." Students practice the skill as teachers support, adjust and encourage. Teachers may give students specific feedback about their mathematical work. The teaching may occur through the use of guided practice, demonstration or explanation of examples. It is all based on the individual student and his/her needs. Additionally, students are prompted toward the next steps in the instructional sequence as the teacher thinks ahead to what the student will tackle later in the instructional sequence.

To me, this sounds like the easiest (or, at least, the most exciting!) part of the process. Once decisions have been made about what the student knows and how he is putting the work into practice, a decision is made about what and how to teach.  

AND THEN YOU TEACH. But this type of teaching is so purposeful, so distilled down to the critical details, there is nothing superfluous. Time is precious. In this one-on-one setting, there is not a moment to be wasted... especially when there are thirty others students who will, at some point, complete the same process.

This is an element of teaching that is often neglected, whether it be in a small group or in a whole group setting. Students need to actively reflect on what they have leaned. The teacher then shares an expectation that this learning will be put into practice in the future. Additionally, this reflection time may lead to ideas about further instruction. This part parallels guided reading instruction most clearly for me. Just as I have asked, "How will you use this new learning when you read the next passage?" I can envision myself asking, "How will you use this new learning on the next problem?" And the follow-up must be explicit to students or the process will not sustain itself. If the expectation is stated that the student will be called upon to utilize their new learning, there must be opportunities for students to do just that. 

For each of the four phases of the conference, Sammons discusses the challenges that a teacher might face as she/he tries to implement Guided Math conferences. By anticipating potential obstacles, the author is, in reality, scaffolding the teachers' learning of the process and, consequently, increasing the chance for success.

As much as this book is helpful, it is also hopeful! Sammons' writing allows a teacher to feel confident about a process that is meant to instill confidence in students and accelerate their mathematical thinking and learning. Her sequential, systematic, kid-honoring approach has certainly inspired me to give Guided Math conferences a try!

I'll leave you with one last quote for good measure (heeheehee... That's some math talk for you!)

Confident students receptive to the instruction they receive... WooHoo! Sounds glorious to me!

Great news! I know there's a mighty good chance that my meandering drivel did not provide you with the most comprehensible summary of the structure of Guided Math conferences. But that's okay, because, lucky for you, Whitney at The Crazy Schoolteacher blog has provided you with another (more streamlined) review of the same chapter. You can check it out here:


Even better, we are waiting for YOU to join us in this Bloggy Book Study. See that space below? There's where you can link up and share your impressions about Guided Math conferences as well. And I really hope you'll join is the discussion because I am looking forward to reading your perspective as well!

So come on... Link up! We've saved a seat for you!

PS Don't you love that chunky font (Claire) by Amy Alvis? Get HERE on TpT!

1 comment :

  1. oh! I was wondering if this would be good for 6th graders. Now I am going to buy one and read it... in that spare time that I have somewhere. It is currently lost but never fear.. I will find it!

    Misty from Think, Wonder, & Teach
    currently lost in her classroom somewhere....


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