Building a Math Community

The math community that we build in our classrooms is the foundation for the learning that our students will experience. As teachers, we have it in our control to make this community a POSITIVE foundation, one that will serve our students in their math journeys far beyond the time we serve them as instructors. It's that important. Dive into the resources below to see how to build a community that will create strong, confident, risk-taking mathematicians, no matter the age group that you teach.

Meredith's Must-Know Info

Think about the first few weeks of school when you spend countless hours helping students to develop daily routines. (Kindergarten teachers, we feel your pain.) Each year, no matter the grade, students must learn the new teacher’s expectations for sharpening pencils in the morning, taking a bathroom break, turning in homework and lining up for recess. They learn how to gather for read aloud and what the process is for asking a question within the whole group. All of this time setting expectations for these class protocols pays off quickly. It helps learning happen more seamlessly. Without taking time for these routines, daily activities would be inefficient, instructional time wasted. Not to mention a teacher’s sanity would quickly be compromised if all these routines had to be explained every day all year long!

Taking time to build a math community is just as important, if not more so. The math expectations set from the beginning of the year will determine the way in which students engage in mathematics all year long. Without a community through which students feel safe taking learning risks, learning will be stifled. Without a community through which mistakes are valued, fear of public failure will dominate some students’ math experiences. Without a community through which students believe that everyone everyone has ideas to contribute, harmful mindsets will taint students’ ability to view themselves as mathematicians.

So where do we start in developing a strong mathematical community? here are a few tips to make your community a successful one.

  1. Develop math norms and highlight them often. Students need explicit direction in what is valued in math class. The norms that we create will help students to know what is valued, what is expected, and when the right norms are nurtured, will help students to feel empowered as mathematicians. Jo Boaler has several great resources to get you started with thinking about the kinds of norms that a strong math community has. Check them out here. I recommend that you post your norms and refer to them often, when you see evidence of students engaging in a particular norm and also when you see opportunities to strengthen one of the class norms.
  2. Plan community lessons just like you plan content lessons. We will not be able to create an awesome math community overnight. It takes time and intentional planning. Start small with a few minutes each day to highlight a particular aspect of the math community that you want students to start developing. Some ideas for this are partner expectations, “turn and talk” protocols, modeling how to disagree respectfully, modeling how to ask a classmate a clarifying question, whole group discussion protocols, and how to engage in “think time.””
  3. Highlight and publicly discuss when students persevere. Saying things like, “Wow! I noticed today that Sarah stuck with the task even when it was very challenging. How did that feel to persevere like that, Sarah?” or “Group A really helped each other when the math got challenging today. No one gave up! Instead they tried different solutions when their first idea didn’t work out. Nice work!” will emphasize to students that it’s the effort that is most valued. That’s not to say that accuracy is not also valued, but when we praise students for putting in the effort, we teach them to keep going until the accurate answer is found. We teach them that it’s ok to have to keep trying. We teach them that speed and automaticity in solution is not what math is all about.
  4. Engage students in mathematical mindset activities. Again, Jo Boaler to the rescue. She has student-facing resources (tasks and videos) on to help students to develop a strong mathematical mindset, and her books will support you in your own professional understanding of what it means to have a mathematical mindset. You can even register for Jo’s online course on boosting mathematical mindset in your class.
  5. Find your own math community. If we participate in a strong math community as educators, we are better equipped to build one in our classrooms. Incorporating doing math together in your school-based Professional Learning community (PLC) is a great way to experience what it’s like to be in a math community and to analyze the norms that you’d like to incorporate in your own class. I participate in a virtual coaches PLC with coaches all over the country and it has strengthened both my view of math communities and my math content knowledge. It’s also helped me to learn how to keep math PLAYFUL! Another option is joining a local chapter of Math Teachers’ Circle or becoming involved in Twitter communities like #elemmathchat, #MTBoS (Math Teachers Blog-o-Sphere), or #iteachmath.


YouCubed: Mindset-Boosting Videos

Jo Boaler’s set of mindset-boosting videos, a mix of videos for students and teachers, can be found here.

Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching | Dan Finkel | TEDxRainier

In his Ted Talk, founder of Math for Love, Dan Finkel, outlines five practices to make teaching math more effective, all of which contribute to a strong math community.

Sample Math Teachers’ Circle | Joshua Zucker

Joshua Zucker explains the difference between math exercises and math problem solving while engaging teachers in a fun and illustrative task. If you are interested in joining a math teacher’s circle, this gives you a taste of what one might be like.

Additional Research

A Math Community Sets the Stage for Deeper Learning

Kentucky Teacher, a publication of the Kentucky Department of Education