Using 4 Learner-Centered Routines to Build Positive Math Identity in Equitable Classrooms

By Laurie Speranzo and Kristin Klingensmith

Institute for Learning

Equitable mathematics instruction that honors the lived experiences, ways of knowing, and linguistic and cultural assets of students should always be at the forefront of our minds. Each and every student has the right to ongoing, high quality, rigorous instruction that recognizes them as learners and that is designed for students to advance their conceptual understanding. Both inside and outside of the classroom, students are thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving daily. It is imperative that we honor the fact that students are doers of mathematics and that the lives students lead provide greater context for mathematical knowledge than what our lessons alone provide. Black and Brown students are doers of mathematics. Emergent multilingual students are mathematicians. Students identified as needing specialized educational support are “math people.” So how can teachers use learner-centered routines to support students in seeing themselves as doers of mathematics?

This article is the second of a two-part series focused on four learner-centered routines:

  • Turn and Talks
  • Stop and Jots
  • Step Backs
  • Quick Writes

It explores how these four routines can be used to foster a positive math identity in students by creating space for voice, agency, and actually doing mathematics. For more information about these routines, check out the first article 4 Go-To Learner-Centered Routines to Bolster Math Discussions, In-Person and Online.

Using Routines to Invite Student Voices and Promote Agency in a Math Classroom

Voice: Students have choice, control, challenge, and opportunities to collaborate.

[Toshalis, E. & Nakkula, M. J., (2012). Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice]

Agency: The capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative…

[Ferguson, R. F., Phillips, S. F., Rowley, F. S., & Friedlander, J. W., (October 2015). The Influence of Teaching Beyond Standardized Test Scores: Engagement, Mindsets, and Agency]

Having students build their identity as doers of mathematics starts with providing opportunities to access voice and employ agency in math classrooms. Student voice in class does not just mean hearing from a student. It means they have the opportunity to share their thinking and to challenge the thinking of others; it means they have the opportunity to work together while engaging in the math so they are constructing meaning, not just taking in information. It also means that they see their words and their mathematical activity as having an impact on the outcome of the classroom discussion. When teachers make the deliberate move of talking less, it leaves more space for students to share their thinking, understanding, and lived math experiences. By attending to student voice in the classroom and providing opportunities that foster agency, students can build agency.

Turn and Talks & Stop and Jots

Imagine this happening in a classroom:

Two students have just shared their solution paths – Josiah used repeated addition to solve the task and Martina used multiplication. The teacher asks, “Can both solution paths be correct? Be ready to say why.”

Four hands shoot up, the same four that are always up.

Though it is exciting to see students ready to share, in an equitable classroom all students are given a chance to process their thinking and be ready to engage in the discussion of the task.

The Turn and Talk and Stop and Jot routines can be used to create time and space for all students to think about and construct a response to the question. Providing opportunities for students to get their own thinking out verbally or on paper honors what every student brings to the table, such as use of a language other than that of instruction, algorithms more dominant in other countries, representations that are not traditional in American classrooms, and student connections to a context related to their own experiences. Consider these examples.

Learner-Centered Routine Example for Use in the Scenario Recognizes Students as Doers of Mathematics
Turn and Talk Ask students to turn to a partner and discuss their thinking. After a minute or so, make sure that the second person in each partnership has had a chance to share so all of the talking is not done by one person.

Every student has the opportunity to verbally share their reasoning to a rigorous mathematics question with a peer. Additionally, every student has the chance to

  • talk with a peer before attempting to express their thinking to the class, which is especially valuable when the language used during a Turn and Talk differs from the language of instruction.
  • rehearse putting their own thinking into words and changing their words to make their ideas clearer.
  • hear other students’ thinking and language.
  • grow more confident in their reasoning because it has been compared and possibly defended with a peer.
Stop and Jot Pause and say, “Take a moment. Stop and jot. Can both solution paths be correct? Why or why not.” to allow students time to process their thinking.

Every student has the opportunity for and responsibility to privately respond to a rigorous question about mathematics and construct a response that may be shared with the whole class. Additionally, every student has the chance to

  • organize their thinking.
  • reflect on and maybe clarify their thinking about the question.
  • feel more prepared to share their thinking.
  • refer to their Stop and Jot when contributing to the discussion.

Turn and Talks and Stop and Jots provide opportunities for students to process independently or collaboratively the question posed by the teacher.

Take a look at these two routines being used in math classes.

In this grade three classroom, they are working on unpacking patterns in multiplication (when doubling one factor, the product doubles). The teacher uses a Turn and Talk to ensure every student has a chance to work through their thinking before hearing from a few students publicly.

In this seventh grade classroom, watch as the teacher uses a Stop and Jot that turns into a Turn and Talk to give students the chance to process their ideas while she uses the time to formatively assess where students are in their understanding.

Step Backs & Quick Writes

Return to the scenario from earlier involving the two solutions paths (multiplication and repeated addition scenario) and think about how the conversation may have progressed. Step Backs and Quick Writes can be used later in such a discussion to build in additional opportunities for student voice and agency, but these would likely be done with a slightly modified question.

Learner-Centered Routine Example for Use in the Scenario Recognizes Students as Doers of Mathematics
Step Back Use one of the other routines and then after students have heard from multiple classmates, ask the step back question “Why is multiplication with [whole] numbers the same as repeated addition?”

Students benefit from repeated public marking of the key structures of the mathematics being studied, by teachers and classmates. Asking students to respond to step back questions, shifts the responsibility of pulling the ideas together to students.

Students are expected to

  • process and synthesize contributions from multiple peers.
  • unpack their own thinking related to the thinking of others.
  • articulate the understanding they’ve constructed so far.
  • listen and weigh the synthesized ideas of others.
Quick Write Because this is an opportunity for a major “a-ha” moment for students, it offers the chance for students to dissect a more narrow piece of the thinking to be able to apply it to the question of if both paths are correct. Start with an independent Quick Write of “How are repeated addition and multiplication similar? Different?”

Using the more narrow Quick Write allows students to be ready to add their voice to the discussion by

  • having them name what they can share with the class (in this case, similarities and differences).
  • allowing them to identify a specific piece to contribute to the conversations (in this case that both solution paths yield the same answer).

Using Routines to Build Positive Student Identity in Math Classrooms

We have all heard people say, “I’m not a math person.” The reality is that math is all around us and impacts how we interpret the world. Therefore, we all need to feel that doing math and thinking mathematically are a part of who we are.

“How students are positioned to participate in mathematics affects not only what they learn but also how they come to see themselves as learners,” according to NCTM (2018), Catalyzing Change, p. 28. Ensuring that student voice is at the forefront of the classroom experience builds students’ confidence, honors the lived experiences they bring to the table, and sustains a belief that they can do the math and that their thoughts matter. As students’ positive identity grows, their voice will be leveraged even more. Students’ math identities are a reflection of the opportunities that have been provided in the classrooms to build voice, agency, and the belief in being a doer of math!

Letting only the four students, who first raised their hands, be the only ones who contribute to the discussion, reinforces the false narrative that math is about speed and that the few whose hands went up first were those “good in math.” By utilizing the learner-centered routines, more students are going to feel that their thinking is worthy of sharing, both in writing and in discussion, and, therefore, build a cadre of learners who believe they can do math! It is incumbent upon us as educators to not only hear student voices in the classroom but listen to what the students are telling us about how what they know and can do as mathematicians.

To read more about instructional approaches that foster student agency, check out the article Focusing on the Instructional Approach Nurtures Agency.

Tell Us About How the Routines You Use Led to Greater Voice

  • Which of these student-centered routines have you tried?
  • How did the routine(s) allow for more student voice in the classroom?

Tell us here.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, Agency and Voice, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Multi-Lingual Learner Instruction, Principles of Learning

4 Go-To Learner-Centered Routines to Bolster Math Discussions, In-Person and Online

By Laurie Speranzo and Kristin Klingensmith

Institute for Learning

Educators who believe that every student has meaningful ideas to contribute can use learner-centered routines to ensure that every student is actively engaged in a math discussion. These routines create space for students to reason about the mathematics of the task in ways that make sense to them using their knowledge from both inside and outside of the classroom. Using learner-centered routines gives teachers multiple opportunities for formative assessment within a single lesson from which they can make adjustments in real-time to better meet where students are in their understanding.

To School Leaders & Coaches

These routines support learning at all ages, so consider if and how you might use these routines during in-person and online professional learning to support deeper understanding of the ideas being explored and discussed with other educators.

Based on two decades of experience with in-person teaching and learning and several years of engaging in online teaching and learning, here are four go-to learner-centered routines to use while facilitating meaningful mathematics discussions in-person and online.

  1. Turn and Talk
  2. Stop and Jot
  3. Step Back
  4. Quick Write

When used consistently, these routines enhance Accountable Talk® discussions in mathematics, support engagement, and scaffold learning.

1. Turn and Talk

Why Use a Turn and Talk?

Turn and Talks create space for students in groups of 2 to 3 to share their ideas related to the mathematics being explored and hear the ideas of others. Turn and Talks are an informal way for teachers to assess (little “a”) where students are in their thinking. Teachers can and should use the insights gained from a Turn and Talk to inform the direction of the mathematics discussion.

Tips for Using Turn and Talks

Turn and Talks are low-risk talk opportunities that can be useful throughout a discussion because students get a chance to “try out” and “rehearse” their thinking alongside others. Turn and Talks are a great go-to after 10 seconds or more of wait time when students need to talk through their thinking before being ready to share with the whole group. If you are familiar with Accountable Talk moves, Turn and Talks are particularly beneficial when used in combination with the moves: challenging, pressing for reasoning, or expanding reasoning.


Adapting Turn and Talks for Online Discussions

In person Turn and Talks are as easy as turning and talking with a neighbor, and allow the teacher to listen in to get a feel for student thinking. Turn and Talks are not as easy to replicate online but are still important for supporting student thinking and engagement.

For online Turn and Talks try

  • moving students into breakout rooms with just 2-3 people for a very brief amount of time.
  • asking students to mute their mics and say their thinking aloud to themselves.
  • establishing Turn and Talk partners so that students can chat privately with a pre-assigned peer via the chat box.

Though online Turn and Talks do not afford the opportunity to “overhear” the Turn and Talk of others, all of the adaptations offer students’ the opportunity to put their thinking into words and to rehearse how they want to express their understanding. Because students cannot be overheard, teachers may want to have a few students share out to the class what they said aloud to themselves or what was shared during their exchange with a peer. If planned in advance, a teacher may pair a Turn and Talk with a multi-select poll to see which ideas resonated with the students following their Turn and Talk.

2. Stop and Jot

Why Use a Stop and Jot?

Stop and Jots provide each student time to collect and record their thinking as it relates to the mathematical idea or relationship currently being discussed. Stop and Jots are commonly used during critical points of discussions and usually involve students adding something new to their written work. This provides teachers the chance to casually check on student thinking as they walk around and glance over students’ shoulders. The information gathered from glancing at students’ Stop and Jots can be used to determine the pathway of the discussion.

Tips for Using Stop and Jots

Because Stop and Jots start out as private thinking time, students tend to feel more comfortable expressing their initial, and possibly incomplete or unfinished, thoughts. Stop and Jots can ask students to write about how two concepts are related, create another or connect two representations, record another/different equation, describe a situation, etc. When using a Stop and Jot, teachers may look for patterns in responses, unique responses, and responses that suggest over-generalizations, to determine what to “take up” next in the discussion.


Adapting Stop and Jots for Online Discussions

During online discussions, it isn’t as easy to sneak a peek at what students jot, so consideration has to be given to low-risk ways for students to share their jotting.

For online Stop and Jots try

  • asking students to write their thoughts on paper and having those who are comfortable share orally or, in the case of visual models or equations, by holding the paper up to the camera.
  • inviting students to type or draw in a shared document.
  • having students use the chat box to share their thinking with the teacher only or with the whole group.
  • using (or a similar platform) so that students can text their responses anonymously and have them collected on a single shared screen.

When making a choice about how to have students share their ideas after a Stop and Jot, keep in mind that some students may feel more comfortable sharing what they wrote verbally than actually sharing their writing. Things like spelling, sentence construction, and use of formal math language are not and should not be a focus during Stop and Jots.

3. Step Back

Why Use a Step Back?

Step Backs offer an opportunity for students to reflect verbally on key learnings from across the entire discussion and to share their conclusions or generalizations with the whole group. Step Backs offer teachers a glimpse into how students are taking stock of the ideas being discussed and their progress toward the mathematical learning goal. They also allow students to again hear the salient and mathematically critical ideas that surfaced during the discussion.

Tips for Using Step Backs

Step Backs are best used following big “ah ha” moments related to the learning goals for the lesson. These moments may occur in the middle or at the end of a discussion and sometimes both. Use Step Backs to create space for students to ponder and consider the Why of the big “ah ha” moment(s).


Adapting Step Backs for Online Discussions

Step Backs do not need to be adapted for online discussions, but they may be used more frequently to help students hold on to critical ideas as understanding is constructed.

For online Step Backs try

  • pre-determining several places during the discussion to do a Step Back so that the discussion has multiple summary points that culminate by the end of the discussion.
  • having at least one or two students “say back in their own words” the teacher’s summary so that others can hear it more than one time and students have a chance to paraphrase the key ideas.
  • varying who is responsible, teacher or students, for summarizing the discussion at a given point.

4. Quick Write

Why Use a Quick Write?

Quick Writes create space for each student to put their thoughts into writing, allowing them to take stock of their knowledge, reflect on their learning, and/or apply their insights, generalizations, and conclusions in a new way. Quick Writes can and should be used as formative assessment because they contain evidence of each student’s thinking and reasoning, especially after engaging in an Accountable Talk discussion.

Tips for Using Quick Writes

Quick Writes can be used at the beginning of a unit of study to learn about students’ prior knowledge. Quick Writes can also be used toward the end of or following a math discussion or summary. In this case, it is important to make sure that the Quick Write relates directly to the mathematical learning goal of the lesson.  Additionally, students and teachers can gain insight about how learning is progressing over time by using Quick Writes after each lesson in a series.


Adapting Quick Writes for Online Discussions

Quick Writes can be used when teaching online in much the same way they are used in-person. The adaption to Quick Writes is mostly about how students will submit them.

For online Quick Writes try

  • having students write a response in the chat but wait until everyone is done writing before sending it so that no one’s thinking is compromised by reading others’ responses.
  • setting up a Padlet (or similar applet) for students to submit their responses and comment on the thoughts of others, using a combination of multi-media options: text, pictures, drawings, and video.
  • having students submit their response via an online form or through email.
  • using a shared document or slide deck.

When making a decision about how to have students submit their Quick Writes, consideration should be given to what the submission option affords. Some options only allow written responses, while other options offer the ability for students to create images and upload pictures or video.

The second article in this two-part series will be released December 1 and will explore how these four learner-centered routines can be used to foster student voice and agency and support students in developing positive mathematical identities as doers of mathematics.


Tell Us About the Learner-Centered Routines You Use

  • Which of these routines do you already use? How is it going?
  • Which of the routines might you add to your toolbox? Why?
  • What other routine do you recommend? Why?

Tell us here.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, Equitable Instruction, Formative Assessment, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Online Instruction, Principles of Learning

Remote Coaching for Rigorous and Engaging Online Classroom Discussions: Layering New Forums with Fresh Insights

By Lindsay Clare Matsumura and Dena Zook-Howell

Institute for Learning and LRDC

In many districts, teachers have worked hard to incorporate Accountable Talk® practices that enable rich classroom discussions. In the COVID-19 pandemic, inequities in resources available to students have been further exacerbated. Often student learning is interrupted by inequitable access to computers and to the internet. Burdens on teachers and other educators also are extreme. Teachers are contending with their own hardships in addition to teaching online for the first time with little training. It can feel like rigorous and interactive conversations are no longer an option. It is possible, however, to engage students in the kinds of rigorous and interactive discussions online that are foundational to student learning. Coaches, even while practicing social distancing, have an important role to play in assisting teachers to continue, rather than abandon, this important pedagogy. Here we describe some things that we are learning from our ongoing research at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center on how coaches can support teachers remotely to engage students in rigorous and interactive online discussions.

What is different about coaching in a pandemic?

Coaching teachers remotely during a pandemic is similar to face-to-face coaching in its focus on student thinking, rigorous content, and cultivation of an inquiry stance toward instruction. Overlaid on top of these, however, is a new role for coaches to support teachers to use features of online platforms to achieve particular learning goals and establish positive online communities. Compounding these knowledge demands is the very real uncertainty that teachers themselves are experiencing in this pandemic. Uncertainty and anxiety provide a weak springboard for learning and responding to teachers emotionally in this new environment is a larger part of the coaching context than it was previously. In the following sections, we discuss specific ways coaches can support teachers to move their discussions online.

⁘ Helping teachers reestablish their classroom learning community.

Even though teachers may have established a strong learning community in their face-to-face instruction, it is likely they will need to reestablish their learning community in the new online environment. Teachers may find, for example, that students who jump in right away during in-person discussions are reluctant to participate in online conversations (and vice versa). Encouraging teachers to take the time to promote the same climate and norms online is essential. This is not a step backwards but instead a path forward to creating the necessary conditions for optimizing online instruction.

Coaches can assist teachers to think imaginatively about options that develop a new sense of community.

Coaches can assist teachers to think imaginatively about options that develop a new sense of community. These should begin with non-academic, low-risk interactions that build toward the academic, robust interactions that support student learning. A sample sequence might begin with each student showing a pet or a favorite toy/hobby to the group. The next interaction could require students to share or upload a picture or description of their favorite place in their home to read or relax, and then, in turn, explain to the group why they chose that place. The idea is to reintroduce students to each other, strengthen a home and school connection, and allow students to get used to the platform before launching into rigorous academic content.

Certain features of online discussion platforms also can be useful to support a low-risk way for students to gain entry into online discussions. This can be especially important for students who are developing their English language skills or for other reasons may feel shy to participate. For example, the polling feature on many platforms can be a useful way to start a discussion or keep students engaged throughout a discussions in the same way that turn and talk can be useful for students to try out their ideas with a peer before speaking with a whole group. We describe this further in the next section.

Establishing powerful and clear online learning routines.

Clear and consistently applied routines that scaffold students’ engagement with complex content are critical to effective classroom discussions, and this is especially the case for online class discussions. An important job of coaches is to help teachers think through what their learning routines will be to achieve particular purposes and goals in discussions, and then connect these routines to features and functions of learning technologies and platforms. Online learners can very easily get lost and confused. Teachers must be far more explicit when giving directions to students online than when teaching face to face (which is all the more reason to develop routines and stick with them). Coaches can assist teachers by helping them develop and trouble shoot directions for participating in different activities. This can help ensure that students’ energy is spent learning and not figuring out what they are supposed to be doing. Fortunately, technologies have advanced to the level that powerful routines for in-person instruction can be translated to an online environment.

⁘ Learning new technologies to support student learning. 

The ability to put online student-centered learning routines into play is dependent on teachers’ familiarity with technology (e.g., discussion platforms such as Microsoft teams). For many teachers, however, the demands entailed in learning new technologies and discussion platforms are overwhelming. The need for differentiated assistance from coaches includes understanding and responding to the range of comfort levels and knowledge of technologies/platforms that provide current instructional options. Coaches can differentiate tech support in a number of ways, such as the following:

  • Modeling a classroom online discussion. One way coaches can support teachers is to engage a group of teachers in a discussion (e.g., a model lesson), showing them ways that features can be used to meet particular learning goals (e.g., small group breakout rooms in place of “turn and talks” or a polling feature or chat box to gather individual student thinking for all to see.).
  • Creating a safe place to experiment. Coaches also can act as students in practice meetings so that teachers can “try on” various teacher moves through the features of the platform, or convene a group of teachers to take turns conducting a mock discussion and using the features.
  • Co-teaching. If teachers feel unsure about conducting online discussions, coaches can co-teach with teachers, acting as a co-host to assist with technology, if that is necessary (e.g., moving students in and out of breakout sessions, switching to a whiteboard or document reader, etc.).
  • Cultivate peer mentoring. Coaches need not have all the tech wisdom. Coaches can also assist teachers to share their knowledge and support mentor/learner partnerships between teachers via conference calls or video meetings. This is a time to cultivate peer mentoring and “think partners,” and coaches are uniquely positioned to know the strengths and needs of the individual teachers and grade levels, and harness the potential for new kinds of professional learning communities.

⁘ Planning lessons for teachers.

Ordinarily, coaches support teachers to plan for class discussions. In a pandemic, however, coaches can ease the stress teachers may be feeling by creating model lessons for class discussions to support individual teachers or groups of teachers. In planning for an online lesson, it is important to consider how particular features of an online platform might be used to further particular learning goals. For example, what kinds of questions might be more productively taken up in whole group discussion or small group breakout sessions? Students can sometimes get antsy sitting in online discussions—what kinds of activities (e.g., polls, responding to teacher questions in the chat feature, doing a stop and jot on sticky notes to share onscreen) might be useful for helping students stay engaged in the discussion?

⁘ Choosing texts.

Something to consider in lesson planning is that students may miss multiple days of school. It might be a good idea to plan around short texts that contain sufficient grist to support a rich online discussion but would not pose a barrier to students reengaging in discussions after several absences. Another consideration is that students are likely to feel more disconnected from school when attending online than when they are attending in person, in addition to grappling with challenges and hardships. We always want students to read engaging texts. But now more than ever is a time to think about texts that will pique student interest and get them thinking, but not require extensive scaffolding to wade through the language. Notably, if groups of teachers want to use the lessons, as described earlier, coaches could engage the teachers in a run through of the lesson with the teachers providing instruction around the platform use throughout.

⁘ Reestablishing a positive professional collaboration. 

In the same way that teachers need to reestablish their classroom learning community when they move to an online format, it is important that coaches work to reestablish their professional learning communities with teachers when coaching remotely. Now more than ever, the balance of content for initial coaching conversations, if not all coaching conversations, will require much more time upfront supporting the social emotional aspect of professional collaboration. Teachers, like many other Americans, are stressed, anxious, lonely, fearful for loved ones, and/or may be experiencing financial distress. Many of their students are also facing significant hardships. Listening to teachers speak to their own experience and concerns is important for both supporting teachers emotionally and helping coaches gauge the kinds of options to pursue together, based on each teacher’s interest and readiness to try new things—one new thing or many new things. Some teachers might feel ready to learn all of the ins and outs of a platform; other teachers might want to move a little slower if they are feeling overwhelmed.

⁘ Reestablishing a positive professional collaboration. 

Although the sense of co-accountability and collaborative problem solving may already be a foundation for your coach-teacher relationships, it is incumbent upon coaches to reframe an inquiry stance in light of this moment. Reminding teachers that we, as a national and global educational community, are all learning together right now, positions discussions to lean into tests of small change. Cultivating an inquiry stance about technology options and which factors seem to be supporting or impeding student learning is critical. Additionally, focusing on student engagement, which is easier to assess and address in-person, requires a critical stance.

Adopting an inquiry stance also can help draw teachers’ (and coaches’) attention to some of the potential affordances of online instruction—for now and for later. Many teachers are reporting that some students participate more in this online environment and some participate less. By studying student engagement, coaches can support teachers to notice aspects of online instruction that support the majority of students as well as specific students. Again, approaching this as an inquiry allows actual study to occur. It may well be that some students will be most supported with a part of their day online, even when instruction becomes in-person again.


® Accountable Talk is a registered trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.
Tagged with: Academic Rigor, Accountable Talk® Discussions, ELA, Equitable Instruction, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Coaching, Online Instruction, Principles of Learning, Reading / Comprehension

Translating Accountable Talk® Practices Between In-Person and Virtual Teaching

By Jazmin Rotger de Parra and Kristin Nuñez

Teaneck Public Schools

Like many of you, we are still navigating the world of remote instruction and virtual classrooms while wanting to stay focused on providing academically rigorous instruction and having high expectations for all students.

At the center of most of our decisions is the idea of instructional equity. Equity does not mean that every student should receive identical instruction. Instead, it demands that reasonable and appropriate accommodations be made as needed to promote access and attainment for all students (NCTM 2000)[i]. Up until now, the decisions that led to a greater degree of instructional equity largely occurred in schools and classrooms. But now we are having to apply all that we know about teaching and learning to maximize equitable opportunities for every one of our students in a world outside the school walls.

…we are having to apply all that we know about teaching and learning to maximize equitable opportunities for every one of our students in a world outside the school walls.

During the 2019-2020 school year, the use of Accountable Talk practices was a pedagogical foci for our Grades 3–5 mathematics classrooms. Through our work, we incorporated and refined our use of discourse and supported students as they engaged in verbal, visual, and written communication. We increased opportunities for students to learn from one another through the collaborative clarifying of ideas, unpacking misconceptions, and making connections across different ways of doing mathematics. Because of our focus on the use of Accountable Talk practices in the classroom, we know how important talk is to developing mathematical understanding. And even in the time of COVID we are continually trying and tweaking different ideas and approaches during online instruction to foster a learning community that engages in meaningful math discussions that advances student understanding.

Mrs. Nuñez is one of our third grade teachers, and she continues to reimagine instruction while holding students and the role of instructional conversation at the center of her efforts. Read on as she describes her first-hand experience with establishing Accountable Talk discussions in her classroom and then transitioning to accountable communication between and among her students and herself in an online world.

Why focus on talk, and specifically, the use of Accountable Talk practices?

From the moment a new group of learners come together, establishing community is vital for their academic success, and the foundation of the community is talk. Skillful teachers recognize the power in leveraging talk to guide understanding and collaboratively construct knowledge.

Building the community this year has been a bit different because we started the school year working online. For the first couple weeks of virtual learning, we engaged in many whole group conversations about respect, uniqueness, and culture. We centered our conversations around read alouds that focused on different social emotional skills. Over the course of a week, we developed class promises to hold each other accountable for our learning and make the most of our time together.

How have you been able to capitalize on the unique opportunity to build community from a distance while students are at home?

Even though I miss teaching in-person, one of the advantages of our current situation is that we have been able to truly expand the walls of the classroom to better encompass students’ lives at home. We unpacked and shared elements of our cultures to learn more about one another. From morning meetings and brain breaks to icebreakers and structured assignments, our classroom community is building a foundation of patience, perseverance, and celebration, which is integral to establishing community both virtually and in-person.

How did you start using Accountable Talk practices during instruction?

There is an assumption that students know how to talk about their thinking; however, this specific type of discourse needs to be explicitly modeled and practiced. Students need opportunities to engage in academic talk that leads to learning. Accountable Talk stems on charts or flip-rings can be used as scaffolded support and referred to during discussions. Similar approaches can be used when working online. Talk stems work because they provide students with diverse backgrounds a common language with a specific, intended conversational purpose to use during our discussions. As students take ownership of what it means to be accountable to their learning community, to accurate knowledge, and to rigorous thinking and truly internalize the expectations, academic conversations flourished, providing rich opportunities for students to build knowledge together and think deeply about content.

What conversation dynamics do you plan for during your instructional minutes?

At the beginning, we do a lot of partner and whole group discussion, and within that I balance student voices and keep mine to a minimum.

After routinely hearing and engaging in Accountable Talk discussions as a whole group, the students adopt the language practices and lead their own conversations—acknowledging and building on each other’s ideas, questioning one another, and supporting claims with evidence. The conversations can seem almost natural in small group discussions, partner conversations, and conferences with me.

I plan for a combination of teacher to student(s) and student(s)-student(s) discussions.

What challenge(s) have you faced integrating Accountable Talk practices into instruction, in person and online? How have you met the challenge(s)?

Though the path to having a language-rich classroom sounds easy, it is not. Not all students are comfortable exposing their thinking, especially when they are aware of the expectation that thinking can (and should) be questioned and challenged. As an adult, it is hard to feel comfortable with the idea that after sharing my best thinking, I am going to have to explore it more deeply—and publicly.

It takes time and intention to create an instructional space where students feel safe enough to willingly take these risks. Since some students may feel more comfortable than others with this exploratory thinking and talking, I have to think critically about the ways in which equity and engagement intersect.

One of the ways I’ve met this challenge, both in person and online, is by establishing expectations for participation. Within the structure and routine of a lesson, I find a variety of ways for students to participate. Everyone gets time to work on and is responsible for working on the problem independently. When working in-person, I have them talk with a partner who works at a similar skill level and pace. Then I have two partner groups talk with each other before we have our grand conversation as a whole class.

When working online, the students share their thinking in a variety of ways. One low-risk way I got them started was by using polls. The polls let me do quick whole class snapshots, and, using follow up “why” questions, let me hear from individual students about their thinking. I also have them use a collaboration board to share their thinking with others after working independently. They use a shared white boards or Google slide in breakout groups. I’ve had students take pictures and send them to me to share with the group. These intentional decisions are the scaffolds for supporting students as they grow their own Accountable Talk practices. Through these efforts my students are more comfortable taking academic risks and have learned the value in hearing and seeing diverse ideas from all members of our classroom learning community.

Say more about how and why you used the collaboration board with students.

When we first started digital learning, I was losing students left and right. Students and families struggled with using the attachments in “order” or had difficulty toggling between multiple sources. I needed to regain control of the wheel, so I researched and experimented with different apps and resources to better guide students in their virtual learning spaces. I searched for digital ways to increase and improve collaborative interactions among the members of our learning community.

I embedded virtual drawing and collaboration boards to engage students in our learning community. Virtual drawing boards allowed students to share their processes and thinking. These boards gave me an opportunity to digitally “walk” through my classroom—to listen in on student conversations, provide feedback through assessing and advancing questions, and make adjustments to my instructional practice. Collaboration boards provided students the ability to respond to the content and each other.

What else did you consider when making decisions about platforms?

These instructional decisions empowered students and created space for them to use their voices. It was important that I strategically chose platforms where they could share their diverse ideas in this virtual space not just with me, the teacher, but also with each other.

Jazmin Rotger de Parra is the Supervisor of Instructional Programs – Mathematics and Kristin Nuñez is a Third Grade Teacher at Teaneck Public Schools.

IFL Step Back

Mrs. Nuñez’s story illustrates the art and science of teaching. She tried several small tests of change as she translated her Accountable Talk practices from in-person to online instruction.

  • Honor students for who they are and all that they bring to the classroom.
  • Make time for and expect talk from students.
  • Provide scaffolds for students to support them as they engage in learning discussions.
  • Allow for a range of communication dynamics.Plan and experiment with different ways of getting students to collaborate and communicate with each other using pictures, images, and written words in addition to spoken words.

Click here to tell us how you are translating Accountable Talk practices during your online, in-person, or hybrid teaching. We want to celebrate your successes and support you in facing the challenges.

[i] p. 12. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.
Accountable Talk is a registered trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.
Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, Agency and Voice, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Math, Online Instruction, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning

Principals Leading with a Coaching Lens

By Ariane Watson and Veronica Strueve

Principal and Assistant Principal, Propel Schools- Pitcairn
Before becoming building principals, we were instructional coaches, each of us having coached either mathematics or ELA. Instruction was always the focus of our coaching work. After several years as principals, we realized that though supporting teaching and learning was a component of our work, it was no longer the focus. Once we came to that realization, we knew that we needed to make some changes.

At the end of the 2018–2019 school year, in anticipation of the next year, we took stock of what was going well with instruction in the classrooms. We reviewed the state data across the years and looked more closely at the district and building data. We also inquired about new instructional materials being purchased by the district and learned that the new materials were comprised mainly of tasks and texts of high-level cognitive demand.

The insights we gained from this preliminary work suggested that students needed more rigorous learning opportunities and that teachers needed opportunities to learn about and refine their practices related to instructional conversations. It was at that moment that we committed to making support for instruction the priority, and in doing so, revived our coaching lens.

We engaged the Institute for Learning as a partner in education and began crafting a plan for the 2019-2020 school year. We started by conducting an Asset Walk was which allowed us to name aspects of classroom practice that could serve as the foundation on which to build. With the adoption of high-quality instructional materials, we decided that the best way to increase academic rigor and enhance the quality of scholar discourse was to focus on Accountable Talk® practices.

We knew that as instructional leaders, the changes we sought would only happen if we maintained a laser-like focus on facilitating Accountable Talk discussions and supported teachers in both learning and refining their instructional practices. Although we were in the role of principals, we knew that putting on our “coaching hat” was key to supporting the teachers. With this in mind, we built a yearlong PD plan dedicated to the study of Accountable Talk practices. It included a series of cross-content professional development sessions. The sessions provided educators opportunities to gain insights about high-leverage instructional practices of which facilitating Accountable Talk discussion is one, the dimensions of equity as related to equitable instruction, ways to support the development of student agency, and the role of socializing intelligence. The plan allowed for frequent content-based PLCs so that Accountable Talk practices could be explored deeply within a content area. As part of the PLC work, educators coded classroom transcripts for Accountable Talk features to better understand what it takes to implement these practices and to track the implementation of these practices over-time.

Since we know that refining practice doesn’t just happen overnight, so in addition to the work outlined in the PD calendar and plan, we also linked our walk-throughs and formal evaluations to the learning and insights gained by educators during PD sessions and PLCs. We also committed to providing time for classroom educators to reflect on practice through classroom case stories so that they can share their implementation journeys. The work also includes learning labs so that classroom educators can see each other engage in planning for, facilitating, and reflecting on Accountable Talk discussions of high-level tasks.

As a community of educators, everyone is encouraged to continuously look for and name what is working related to the implementation of Accountable Talk practices, so there is regular feedback on our collective efforts. As part of the feedback (and central to improvement work), we wonder about and identify a specific aspect of practice for further inquiry. We know that sustainable change takes time, and we have committed to a three-year process to support classroom educators as they refine their professional skills and competencies related to content pedagogy.

Having the intentional focus of increasing academic rigor and the use of the high-leverage practice facilitating Accountable Talk discussions has allowed us to reclaim our coaching lens. And, in doing so, we have been able to more effectively support classroom educators as they refine their instructional practices to create more equitable learning environments.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Coaching, Leadership, Math, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning