Kassia Omohundro Wedekind is the author of Math Exchanges: Guiding Young Mathematicians in Small Group Meetings. In this podcast with Franki Sibberson, she talks about the connections between reading, writing and math.
A full transcript is below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Can you talk a little bit about the connection that you see between literacy and math?
Kassia Omohundro Wedekind: Yes. I started out as a teacher mainly of literacy, as a classroom teacher and the teacher of English language learners. So my background was really in understanding readers and writers and how reading workshop and writing workshop happened.
And then I just happened into a position where I was teaching mostly math and science and then as a math coach. And I started to think about how there’s quite a disparity between how we think about children as literacy learners and children as math learners. And fortunately we really embrace the idea that children are readers and writers and that they can do authentic work in these areas.
And that’s really a new idea in math that children can create math or that there is even math still to be created and that mathematics is creative and innovative. And that we can call children mathematicians. That’s really quite a new idea and not one that everyone agrees with and one that people question me on a lot. But it’s something that I really believe that children are mathematicians and not in just kind of a cutesy way but that they’re doing the real work of mathematicians just as they are as readers and writers.
Franki: So smart. So how much of a world does reading, writing and talking have in your math work with students?
Kassia: Yeah, I think I see those as seamless parts of the math workshop, especially talk. And I think that teaching children to talk about mathematics is one of the first things that I try to establish in my math workshops in the beginning of the year. I’m teaching kindergarten this year so right from the beginning when we start our math workshops, we’re talking about math and what does it mean to first of all to have a conversation, a dialogue where you’re really listening and responding and agreeing and disagreeing just as you would when you’re talking about a book and how we talk about our strategies in math.
So talk is really important. We have talk throughout the math workshop. We have talk in the math exchanges, which is what I call the small group part of the math workshop. And then we gather at the end of our math workshop to have reflection again. And I think this is possible with kindergarteners. They blow me away every day with their observations and their thoughts at five years old and it’s certainly possible throughout the grades.
And I think that reading and writing is just kind of interwoven into our math workshop. We are always writing about our strategies, writing and drawing about our strategies. And reading each other’s work; we do a lot of anchor charts of our thinking and talking about how we prove strategies or talking about the behaviors and practices about mathematicians. So these are charts that we are referring back to every day and we’re adding things in writing and drawing and in pictures so that we can really track our thinking, the footprints of our thinking and how our thinking is changing and evolving as we do our work as mathematicians.
Franki: Why do you think that whole seamlessness of reading, writing, talking and math is important?
Kassia: I think it’s important that children see themselves as agents of their own learning and that they’re seeing what they’re doing in school not just as I’m doing this because this is school or because my teacher tells me to do this. But we’re doing this to become more powerful people, really, and able to advocate for ourselves, able to make choices in life. And I think that’s true when you think about the power that reading brings and being a literate person brings. The same is true of being literate in mathematics that that gives us power as people.
And so it’s important to me that children see our work as readers and writers and mathematicians and scientists as part of becoming a person that is powerful and is able to advocate for themselves and able to make choices in life.
Franki: That’s really powerful thinking. I don’t know where I saw this but I was online looking at I think one of your slide presentations or something. But can you talk about your idea of math as storytelling? How does that play out in the classroom?
Kassia: Yeah. This is one of my new things that I’m thinking about and kind of researching now. And I did a presentation about math and storytelling. And it really happened – I stumbled upon some research from the University of Waterloo from Daniela O’Neill was the primary researcher.
And the research showed, they took very young children, three years old I think and they studied their narrative ability, their ability to retell a story essentially and to kind of – and they thought about different parts of what it meant to retell a story and what it meant to be strong in your narrative ability or strong in your storytelling ability. And then they had these children back a couple of years later when they were four and five and they gave them kind of a myriad of tasks to see if strong narrative ability as a preschooler, as a young child, had any effect on your academic achievement later.
And what they found I think was really surprising to them and surprising to me was that the area in which being a strong narrator, a strong storyteller was most predictive of academic achievement was in math. So that’s kind of where – and they make some propositions about why they think that might be. And so that kind of got me thinking about why is that that there is such a relationship at a young age between language and math?
And what they think is that there is this kind of evolutionary link between how language develops as societies were developing and how math was developing. And they think about math not as computation necessarily but the ability really to problem solve which is what my book is about and the ability to negotiate complex relationships. So they say, and this comes out of the work of mathematician Keith Devlin as well that as society got more complex and people needed to be able to negotiate more complex relationships, language developed and also problem-solving developed; so those two developed hand in hand.
Kassia: And so what I am really thinking about now is those people are in the field of education. They were doing research not thinking about the implications for teachers. So what I am really thinking about now is what does that mean for us as teachers? And how should we be connecting math and storytelling?
And what I really found in my own work and the work that we do at my school is that there is an extremely strong connection between how children can retell and talk about a story problem for instance and how well they are able to solve it. The connection is very strong and if I teach them and model how to be storytellers mathematically and how to see math as a story because that’s the first step to see that math is in our world and that we can talk about how math is occurring around us. That really creates strong problem solvers and people that think about math in a much more holistic way than simply computation. And really, that is what it means to be a mathematician. It’s not just computation. It is a new way of thinking about the world.
Franki: Wow, this is so exciting. So I know you do a lot of work with English language learners. Can you talk specifically about that and how does the literacy piece of math help them as learners?
Kassia: Right. I am at a school; I work at a title one school where I think 80% of our students are English language learners and certainly that’s representative of my own kindergarten class. And I think for a while the traditional thought is that in math is that we want to take out all the language, as much language as possible out of math so that we can just get down to the nitty-gritty of the computation and that is what’s going to help English language learners because numbers are universal but it’s all this language that is getting in their way.
And I think that that is a really dangerous way of thinking and I think that that is not helping us because I think when you take the language out of math, you are taking the context of the story, of the problem out of math and you are depriving them of the reason that they are solving whatever problem that you are solving. And so what I found in my work is that I don’t take language out. I use supports to help my English language learners, props and storytelling and storytelling in and of itself has helped English language learners because we are talking about repeated lines. There are songs in storytelling. There are gestures in storytelling. So when we solve problems and we are involving all that, they are understanding what the story is about and they are able to solve the problem.
But I think using language and using scaffolding the language is what’s going to help English language learners develop as mathematicians and in their English language. And I think that is really different than how I have approached English language learners in math in the past and how the traditional thought about how we should work with English language learners in math is.
Franki: Wow, that is a huge point. In your book, you talked mostly about the importance of small group work in math. Can you talk a bit about the kinds of things that happen in those small groups?
Kassia: Yeah. I think that math exchanges, that working in small groups is really the heart of a math workshop. It is the time that you are meeting with these small groups and you are giving it a level of importance that this is an exchange where all people, with important ideas, with strengths but also with challenges. And that you are all they are as individuals for a reason, to collaborate together and solving something and figuring something out as mathematicians.
And I think of that work that we are putting into the small groups is really powerful so that when children come to these groups, they are excited about coming. It’s their time when I call them to work with me in small groups that they are excited that it is their time to work collaboratively on these problems that we use. And that it allows me, much as you would in a guided reading session, to see what strategies children have in place, what strategies are on the horizon, what misconceptions they are having. And it allows me to kind of facilitate their learning, not through me modeling an algorithm or telling them how to do it but through facilitating the different strengths and challenges in the group and it allows me to help them clarify their own thinking. It helps them build upon more and more efficient strategies which is what we want for each mathematician.
So it’s really a great time for me to observe and facilitate and that’s kind of how I see the teacher role in the small group; not usually as modeling explicitly but as facilitating the group and facilitating the learner and being very aware and knowledgeable of the strategies that the mathematicians were using and what the next step is for those. And that takes a lot of study outside of the small group of preparedness and purposefulness informing those groups.
Franki: Wow, smart. Can you talk a little bit about the upcoming Common Core State Standards and how you are thinking about math kind of coordinates with that?
Kassia: Yeah. Well, when I think about the intentions behind the Common Core Standards, I think some of the intentions were that specifically in math that math is not learned in isolation and algorithms are not learned in isolation and that we are not kind of having this mile wide, inch deep understanding of mathematics. So I think that there are parts of the Common Core Standards that talk specifically about conversation and dialogue and deep understanding. And I am hoping that that is what people take away from them in addition to the specific standards of knowing facts to 10 or something like that, the standards of the process of learning math and that people spend a long time thinking about what that means for their learners and how to best facilitate that.