Friday, February 10, 2012

overheard in the staff meeting

I'll admit that I was surprised to walk into a staff development session on math teaching a few months ago to hear it suggested that we begin math lessons by asking "What do you notice?  What do you wonder?"  I've talked for years about how poetry grows out of noticing and wondering, and while I've applied the Noticing and Wondering formula (which is anything but formulaic, once you get past the initial questions) to every other piece of curriculum in the classroom, I realize that I've been leaving math out.

You can watch the video that I found mind-changing at that staff development meeting here:

Our staff has met twice more to consider and discuss (only very briefly; seven minutes isn't near enough time for in-depth conversations) this approach to math education and to try to link it--of course--to the new Common Core Standards and to the Five Strands of Mathematical Proficiency, UCARE.  (Yes, I care about math; it just doesn't come as naturally to me!)

Earlier this week one of my colleagues shared, valuably, her experience with a less-is-more inquiry approach which begins with a lot of TIME.  To start, she has been offering her students plenty of time to sit and look at a new math concept, such as a fraction and its reduced version, in order to notice and wonder about the two numbers and their possible relationships.  Perhaps they attempt to represent their ideas on paper or whiteboards.

Once they have begun to have some ideas about what might be going on (and my favorite feature of  the "What do you notice?" launch is that everyone can notice, whether or not they have an inkling of what the end point or "correct answer" might be), the children have seven whole minutes to talk through their thoughts with a partner, to express their notions of the problem in words.  This is wait time with a capital W. 

My colleague spoke about her strong tendency to feel that this might be a waste of time, compared to simply teaching the class the logarithm for reducing fractions straightaway, and how she has had to persevere in permitting herself to allow time for ambiguity, for process.  She described observing the children's initial delving into what the problem might be, and how understanding comes in fits and starts that often begin with "flashes of maybeness." 

This is a feeling I know well, having been a child who struggled with math although I had a fairly good sense of "reasonable."  Now I know that not understanding place value until I was offered base 10 blocks in a Math for Teachers course at age 22 makes me a more effective and sympathetic teacher for children (unlike my own!) who need substantial time to reach true comprehension of math concepts.  I'm grateful for the lead toward honoring all those flashes of maybeness.


there's a ticklish
in your eyebrows
or ribs
a lightness
that zaps through
your backbone and lungs

a pause
a breath and then
flashes of maybeness
bubble your brain:
"that might--
it could--
what if--
hey, look!"

the eye in your mind opens wide
starts to see
and any day now
your mouth will catch up

Heidi Mordhorst 2012
all rights reserved

Many thanks to my colleague Stephanie Cromwell for giving me this week's poem, and to Joelle Thompson, the staff development teacher who has been leading these meetings.  The round-up this Poetry Friday is with Laura Purdie Salas (and her guest David Harrison) at writing the world for kids. 


  1. Thank you, Heidi - from one who must have needed more wonder-time in early math classes, too! Terrific poem, and I'll be rolling around the "flashes of maybeness" in my mind for a while.

  2. I love this post! Thanks so much for sharing it. I'm a firm believer in noticing and wondering, particularly in math. We need to give kids opportunities to talk about what they see and think without always expecting the correct answer. That kind of climate embraces risk-taking and increases confidence. Yes, it takes time, but it's so worth doing.

    Love the last stanza of your poem!

  3. THank you for this post, Heidi. I'm not a classroom teacher, but in general, in school visits, working with writer clients, etc., I tend to be a "let's get going so I can give you as much info as I can in the time we have" kind of person. I want to give as much as I can. But this is a great reminder that giving information is not the goal every minute. Helping kids learn how to figure things out, value their observations, and ask questions is every bit as important.

  4. How often I don't give myself time for those "flashes of maybeness," let alone my students. Thanks for this.

  5. Oh, "flashes of maybeness"! This was such a thoughtful post...I think we all need time to wonder before taking the plunge into the nitty gritty. I will be sharing this ( and the video) with my team of teachers on Monday. Thank you!

  6. Perfect timing. We start work with fractions on Monday. And now I'll start with a good dose of NOTICING and WONDERING. (It will drive some of my "right answer" kids mad, I'm sure...)

    Hey, are you going to participate in Ed DeCaria's March Madness?

  7. I so love the noticing and wondering approach. Reminds me of loupe work with the Private Eye program... always allowing the what else does it remind you of? what else? what else? this is where big thinking happens (and yes, as you said, poetry!), in that noticing/wondering space. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  8. Wonder and imagining are the domain of children and have, much to their detriment, been absent in many schools for too long. How wonderful to hear that it is coming back.

    Heidi - I once did a collaborative workshop in a middle school with a dance/movement instructor. I taught poetry across the curriculum and then she taught movement. Math and poetry was especially delightful! When the students realized that they could count out their problems with rhythm instruments, just as they had counted out the rhythm of a counting poem, they didn't want to leave class!

    Blessings to you and all teachers!

  9. Since Irene mentioned our program, The Private Eye Project, I'd like to invite you to visit our Student Gallery. Some lovely examples of student writing and drawing using The Private Eye process:


Thanks for joining in the wild rumpus!