A few months ago, I wrote a post entitled Roles and Complex Instruction: Getting the School Year Started. It was written during a period of particular optimism and excitement as all we teachers feel at the start of a new school year. After returning to this post and having a re-read, I had some thoughts that I wanted to get down about how it has all turned out so far. As always, I am very much open to comments from anyone who might have some suggestions for how I might improve learning experiences for my students!

I came into the year with a goal to start my grade 9 students off with the language of functions that they would need to be successful during the school year. Our school offers all three IB programs and so their MYP program requires them to investigate patterns, apply mathematics to real world situations, and communicate themselves effectively. It seemed logical to apply complex instruction in this case to get them verbalizing their thought process while gathered in dialogue around mathematical concepts.

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten roles to work as well as I’ve wanted as students tackle a task together in groups. It often seems that students have so much language to deal with as English Language Learners (ELLs) that focusing on the roles has gotten in their way of getting the task done. The purpose of the roles is to help them work better together on a task as the roles themselves are interdependent rather than acting as a division of labour. Getting them to follow the roles has been more challenging than I expected, and it has a lot to do with how much attention I give this during a lesson. In the end, I just want them to gain understanding and whether they follow the roles or not becomes secondary as valuable seconds of a lesson tick away. Naturally, they have been very quick to figure this out!

Another challenge I face is that a lot of my students’ conceptual work together takes place in their Mother Tongue (often Korean, though some Chinese students attend our school) as it needs to for maximum learning gains (much research has shown this, but here is one example). So the bigger challenge that I face is how to get the students speaking in English and learning academic language that I require of them in English. And when in their conceptual process do I do this?

Looking back, I should have had students learning math language and group work language in smaller chunks. I wonder if I introduced the roles too soon as well. Having a unit where I simply focused on the mathematical language was a good idea, but it also came at a time when a whole host of other words needed to be in their vocabulary too. That was just too much.

My plan now is to take a step back and deal with math language. I will not disregard the roles, and when a task really calls for them, I will use them. So far, however, a strength in my classroom is that the tasks I have been able to present are group-worthy, and so I am getting the students together in productive discussion about mathematics, which is an achievement. I will continue to work to make tasks that are group-worthy, and I will use more visible thinking routines to make the key concepts from lessons more explicit. I have provided sentence frames for students at their tables, but these need to be a more central part of each lesson as they have been often overlooked. I think these things and my expectation that they speak in English at appropriate times in the lesson will go a long way to bringing up their use of academic mathematical language.

By the way, if you’re looking for some examples of math group-worthy tasks, check out NRICH.org. They have a great selection of resources for mathematics teachers, making learning tangible and encouraging students to gather together around a great problem.

I want my classroom to be a place where students are building confidence in their problem solving skills and their intuition for innovation. Math is, after all, where you can learn how to work within parameters to make your own possibilities, not follow a set of rules that someone else gives you. It sometimes feels like the steps I’m taking to get my classroom there are SO small! But I have to remember that it’s the taking of the steps that matters.