Math in the Age of Distance Learning – Part 1

Peas are a mathematical powerhouse.

I’m naming this blog “Part 1” to hold myself accountable to write a “Part 2” in a couple months, when school is over and I can look back with a more summative lens on the various successes and challenges of teaching math to Kindergarteners in a distance learning setting.

For now, though, I’ll share my journey with these students, what we’ve done so far and how I’m thinking about the the rest of the year. I’ve been reading Amanda Jansen’s Rough Draft Math and it’s inspired me to share my partially-formed-almost-definitely-going-to-change thinking – as it’s still happening and evolving. So let’s get started.

But first, I’ll give you a little context.

The Beginning

It was a Saturday when I learned I would take over as a Kindergarten teacher for the rest of the school year for a teacher who was going on maternity leave. On a Tuesday morning, barely a week later, I came to the school for a professional development day and was told okay, it’s happening, and you’re the teacher now. On Wednesday, all the schools in our district closed, and by the next Monday I was teaching Kindergarten, fully online.

I think we were one of the first districts in the country to go fully online. My district had the time and resources to ensure every student had access to wifi and useable devices. I know many people are in contexts where they aren’t able to reach their students in this way. The inequity between school districts mere miles from each other is staggering.

The first week was intense – we were pushing out math, reading and writing material every single day. It was completely unsustainable for teachers and families – we were navigating new ways to use tech and overcomplicating absolutely everything. The one thing I do remember as a great was the opportunity for students to engage in what came to be known as #CountingCollectionsAtHome.

Students found and counted a collection of objects, and used Seesaw to document their estimation, counting strategy and total. Seesaw also lets you take a photograph and add it to a submission – and audio record over it. I was able to hear how students described their counts, and give audio feedback to push their thinking, such as: Was as your total more or less than your estimate? How do you know?

Phase 2

The following weeks, the situation in the country was evolving rapidly and we took a “pause” in our online instruction to reconfigure a more manageable teaching schedule. What resulted was a district shift to project-based or task-based learning, where we teach each main subject – math, reading, writing – on one designated day of the week. So instead of doing five assignments in each subject per week – we are now doing one.

We were encouraged to ditch prescriptive worksheets in favor of more open-ended tasks for all subjects – guided by the big grade-level standards. We tried to think about projects that were simple enough for students to accomplish without much difficulty but rich enough for those with more time to take further if they so wished.

Corn cob ten frames! What’s the same? What’s different? (Click the picture to see the intro video for this task)

My class meets live for 30 minutes three times a week, and each day we talk about a designated subject area (math, reading, writing). In each block of time, we think about what we learned the last week, share out, and explore some new ideas together. I make sure all students get an opportunity to contribute their ideas. Afterwards, a corresponding activity is posted on Seesaw, and students and families can work at their own pace to complete these over the course of a week.

This is the format I settled on for my class – but there are so many variations depending on so many factors. Our first week of trying this new iteration, when we having a bit of a “slow start”, I introduced the Same and Different routine by filming a video, and had students find their own things to compare.

A student example of the Same and Different image they created.

When we returned after spring break, I decided to split up the big Kindergarten math standards into chunks and spread them out over a certain number of weeks. First up – a two week chunk focused on counting. I took inspiration from Zak Champagne’s wonderful blog. We started by reading the book How Many? during our live time, looked closely at some of the pictures and talked about different things we could count in the world around us. Students took their own pictures and described all the things they could count in them.

A student tells us How Many? they see in a photograph they took.

The following week, we circled back on one of the student’s pictures and talked about what all we could count. Then we moved onto Choral Counting by 2s. To do this, I screen-shared my iPad and Apple Pencil and wrote in the GoodNotes app. I played around and found this easier to use than using the whiteboard feature or annotating.

Left: Choral Count by 2s we did together live. Right: After, students found patterns in a 5s Choral Count

I was hoping students would begin to see connections between these two counts – it would take a lot of time and days of thinking together (that we sadly don’t have) to really get to all the ideas – but looking at these counts in conjunction, they are able to begin to think about the relationship between 2, 5 and 10.

After exploring patterns of 2s and 5s, students found objects in their homes that come in groups of 2s or 5s (or 3s or 4s – inspired by Janice Novakowski). We emphasized representing how you counted all the objects. I have to say I’m extremely impressed with what students found – socks, shoes, doorknobs, chopsticks, chair legs, drawers, eyes, fingers, toes, pillows…the list goes on.

What I’ve Learned

  • Use tech minimally, consistently and only to enhance the experience rather than create it. It honestly shouldn’t really matter what platforms your district uses – all tech is ultimately just a tool to make things easier. Don’t let the bells and whistles drag you down. Ask yourself:
    • How can I make this experience the most like being in a classroom as possible?
    • What opportunities does distance learning afford us to learn more about student thinking than may normally be possible due to various in-school limitations?
    • How can I use tech to enhance student agency?
    • How can I use tech to let students see each other’s thinking?
  • Distance teaching math feels significantly more challenging to me than for reading and writing (which in some ways seem easier now). It’s hard to find ways to connect each week’s tasks (vs. a month-long book study or report).

Moving Forward

I have some ideas about what to focus on during the remaining eight weeks. Will those ideas change? Almost certainly. Nevertheless, here they are:

  • I’m hoping to move onto problem solving – thinking about addition and subtraction, decomposing 10, etc. for the next few weeks.
    • I’m thinking about interesting ways to do this, especially given that we only have math once a week. 3 Act Tasks? What else?
  • I’d like to then be able to explore geometry, measurement and data – and maybe end the year out with some math art and games.