Monday, April 4, 2016

Spring Classroom Reflections: How Great Visuals Help

For the last couple of months, I have been taking note of the excellent visuals I see on classroom walls that help students with their mathematical routines.

I've always had mixed feelings about math visuals.. In middle school, when the phenomenon of math anxiety really begins to set in for some, the last thing I ever wanted to do was scare my students every time they came in my classroom with equations and formulae all over the walls.  I'm a math teacher, someone who genuinely sees beauty in mathematics, and a room full of numbers sounds kind of nauseating even to me.  But over the years I have grown to appreciate carefully planned visuals that truly help students with learning.  I've learned that what those visuals are and how they are displayed is just as important as how they are utilized.

For example, some of the posters that I see in first and second grade classrooms display strategies for subtraction.  They are clearly visible and attractive, but most importantly, I see teachers referring to them.  A poster on the wall is just a poster on the wall until it is demonstrated and modelled as a tool that can be utilized by students at any time.

Word walls are another thing that can be useful if displayed and utilized intentionally.  Otherwise, it is just a group of words on the wall that might as well be in a foreign language.  In the Everyday Math lessons, unit vocabulary is listed in the Mathematical Background section of the Teacher's Lesson Guide, located just before the first lesson of each unit.  Building a word wall and evolving it with each unit is a great practice, but actually referring to it and encouraging students to refer to it is best.  Wall space is precious in most classrooms I visit, and one wouldn't want that precious space to go un-utilized. 

Many of the excellent visuals I see when I visit classrooms are interdisciplinary.  Most notably, posters and wall art that displays think-stems and sentence starters for writing exercises are perfectly appropriate for students who need help expressing their mathematical thinking on paper.  This is one of our students' biggest challenges, and having those visual aids on the wall can be extremely helpful to them.  Developing confidence in writing is a big deal, and I have a feeling it is going to be a major source of collaboration in RSU 5 among the strategists in both literacy and math in the future.

Both science and social studies displays can include mathematical components as well.  I have seen planetary displays (miles and kilometers), timelines (years, positive and negative numbers), and thermometers (also positive and negative numbers) displayed in classrooms

Most of the representations of classroom visuals I chose to include came from RSU 5 classrooms, and most of them are hand-made.  There are some nice math posters you can buy online, but you never know if it will pertain to exactly what you want on your wall.  Nice teacher-made wall art takes time and effort, but it can be used year after year, and can even be laminated.  Also, Every EM4 teacher kit came with a series of posters that display the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice, along with EM4's aligned Goals for Mathematical Practice.  These can be displayed all at once or rotated in and out to focus on specific practices.  The key, though, as with any display, is to refer to them often and model their use.  

It is great to see such carefully thought-out and smartly displayed mathematical wall displays in so many places.  I will keep taking more pictures and posting them as they are all ideas worth sharing.