Texts on Tuesdays: An Interview with Laney Sammons about “Guided Math” and more!

It’s time for this summer’s second “Texts on Tuesdays”, and I am THRILLED to be able to share with you some words of wisdom from Laney Sammons.
If you are unfamiliar with Laney’s work, she is the author of a number of professional books for math teachers–including “Guided Math” which gives teachers everything they need to better understand the framework of “Guided Math”, its components, and the strategies needed to successfully begin to implement this approach in their classrooms.  Laney has also written “Building Mathematical Comprehension”, a book that makes the important connections between how students learn literacy and language and how relevant this is to math instruction.  Her book “Guided Math Conferences” is geared toward providing teachers with better tools to help them maximize their conferring time.  Links to these three books follow the interview, and I encourage you to check them out!

Some teachers in my district did a book study on “Guided Math” a few years ago, and I know it was a game changer for many teachers and gave them the nudge to start to break away from whole class instruction and try a new approach.  That being said, change is hard and sometimes our fear of big change keeps us stagnant.  My first question to Laney was as follows:
“I think when many people here the terms “Math Workshop” or “Guided Math”, they may panic a little and believe that changing from their current practice to a new format is simply too daunting. What advice would you give a teacher who is just trying to dip their toes into restructuring their math period?” 

Laney Sammons: Anytime we attempt something new it can be a little daunting.  This is especially true when we know the importance of what we do in the classroom.  Our work impacts so many young learners.  We want our work in the classroom to be both effective and efficient—for the sake of our students and for our own sanity.
My first advice would be to those who already use Guided Reading in their classrooms.  Although there are differences, knowing how to establish a workshop structure and teach students routines and procedures are essential to both Guided Reading and Guided Math.  Try to incorporate the same routines and procedures for both workshops.  Build on what you are already doing.  
Next, especially for those who have never implemented Reading Workshop in their classrooms, it is important to envision how you want the Math Workshop to operate. Talk with other teachers to see what kinds of routines and procedures that they have established.  Remember, you can’t teach your students how to behave in a workshop setting unless you know what your expectations are.
Once you have developed routines and procedures, take time to teach them.  Share them with students and provide lots of practice time.  And, when you actually begin, do not hesitate to call a halt to it if students are not following the established routines.  But, don’t give up.  Reteach and practice again.  Students enjoy math workshop and, given the chance, will do what they need to in order to keep it going.
Finally, do not feel as if you have to dive in all at once.  Believe that you and your students can do it. Give it a try. Modify what is not working, if needed. And, give it another try.  Make it work for you and your students.  It is well worth the effort.
“In your book “Building Mathematical Comprehension”, you give many different strategies for infusing more opportunities for language use during math.  Many math “experts” today are suggesting anywhere from 50-60% of our math instruction time should involve student discourse. What are your thoughts about incorporating written and oral language into 
math class?”
Laney Sammons: As you would expect from having read my book, I think mathematical discourse is hugely important for many reasons. New studies have emerged linking the understanding of mathematical vocabulary with mathematical proficiency.  For those of us who have been involved in literacy instruction as well as mathematics instruction, that is hardly surprising.  Discourse provides experience in understanding and using appropriate mathematical vocabulary.  Sometimes just understanding mathematical terms opens the eyes of students to an awareness of new areas of mathematical thinking.
Also, when you consider what we have to do to before we share our mathematical thinking, that in and of itself is of such value.  We have to listen to the comments of others, review what we know about a mathematical topic, consider how what we know applies to what is being discussed, choose what ideas we will share, organize our thoughts so those ideas can be put into words (either written or spoken), and then finally share our ideas with others.  So, without even considering other beneficial aspects of discourse—such as listening to the ideas of others and learning about different points of views, engaging in discourse positively impacts learning.
Mathematical discourse is promoted throughout the Guided Math framework, especially through math huddles conversations, small-group lessons, math conferences, and balanced assessments.
My belief in the value of mathematical discourse by students is why I am convinced that small-group instruction is so valuable. With small-group lessons, students assume a much greater responsibility for sharing their thinking—through both “turn and talk” (but closely monitored by the teacher) and sharing mathematical thinking with the group as a whole.  The teacher teaches with less talk while students are expected to engage in not only hands-on learning, but also minds-on (expressed orally or in writing).  Teachers pose carefully crafted questions to encourage students’ mathematical thinking, learning, and communication. Students who are reluctant to speak in a large group setting are frequently much more willing to talk in this more intimate setting.
In order to encourage mathematical discourse and build a community of mathematicians in our classrooms, we have to explicitly teach our students how to converse.  Many of our students never engage in these kinds of conversations outside the classroom.  They have to learn to be respectful of each other, to actively listen (not just be quiet when someone else is talking), and to respond with relevance to the ideas others express.

One of the biggest complaints that teachers “in the trenches” face is making sure students who are not working directly with the teacher ARE  doing meaningful work.  Your books are full of great ideas, but how would you recommend that teachers go about evaluating whether or not these independent or collaborative activities are meaningful ways for students to spend their math time?
Laney Sammons: I think there are two issues here.  One is whether the tasks themselves are meaningful and the other is whether students are held accountable for the work they do independently during Math Workshop.
Addressing the first issue—I believe that math workstation tasks should focus primarily on building computational fluency and on the review and maintenance of previously mastered concepts and skills.  These are meaningful tasks that are valuable to student learning.
We never seem to have enough time for activities and tasks that help students build computational fluency, and students can often complete them independently. So, they are ideal tasks to be assigned at a work station.
Math Workshop is not the best time to assign continued practice on a new concept or skill.  By assigning practice to help students review and maintain what they have already learned rather than practice newly taught topics, teachers avoid having students becoming frustrated and wanting to interrupt small-group lessons or completing the work incorrectly.  If these learners could already complete the work for the current lesson independently with accuracy, it would obviously not be the focus of the current lesson—so why should we expect students to successfully engage in this kind of work independently in Math Workshop?  There were times when I was teaching, if students demonstrated mastery in a small-group lesson, that I would ask students to finish up their current work independently (if I was convinced that they had mastered it) and then join Math Workshop, but it was not an assigned workstation task.
Assigning practice and review workstation tasks offers additional benefits. Instead of interrupting instructional sequences with periodic review of previously mastered standards, students can practice them on an ongoing basis providing what Marzano refers to as distributed practice.  It is this kind of practice—coming back repeatedly—that leads to understanding in students’ permanent memory.  For learning, it is more effective to practice in smaller chunks spread out over time than to complete one big chunk of practice and then move on.  Instead of assigning all the practice problems at the time a lesson is taught, teachers can have students work with those that will allow the teacher to best assess student learning and save the others to be assigned periodically as independent work during Math Workshop.
I believe that with mindful attention to the assignment of math workstation tasks, they are meaningful and worth the effort by students.
To address the second issue—it is obvious that students must understand that they are accountable for being on task during Math Workshop and for doing their best.  In addition, teachers need to be able to assess the work of students.  
Are students completing the work they are asked to do and are they completing it with accuracy? Some tasks, such as the distributed practice tasks described earlier, might be graded, but what about games to reinforce math concepts and skills or other less documented tasks?   One method of accountability that I have found to be useful is having students record their work in a math journal or recording sheet.  Even games can be recorded turn by turn.  For example, if students play Addition War with number cards, students would record the cards drawn and how the sums compared with each turn (e.g., 5 + 9 > 8 + 2 or 14 > 10).
At the end of Math Workshop, these logs recording the work of students might be placed on top of each student’s desk open to that day’s work so that the teacher can check it briefly for accuracy and to ensure that enough work was completed.  Instead of checking it at the end of the class, some teachers have students turn in their logs open to the appropriate page, and then quickly check it at the end of the day.  
If teachers notice that students have not completed enough work, they can follow-up with those students. Likewise, if they notice many errors, they can check to see if students have misconceptions or if they just weren’t taking the work seriously and doing their best.

I would like to give a huge “thank you” to Laney Sammons for taking the time to answer my questions and share her insight with all of us.  I hope her thoughts got you thinking about your math instruction–it sure got my brain humming!  Interested in learning more?  Check out these links to Laney’s books!

I’d love to hear from you about how YOU got started making some changes in your math instruction.  Feel free to share your ideas in the comments. Thanks for stopping by “Texts on Tuesdays!”