The challenges of online math instruction
A kindergarten teacher recounts her journey in online math instruction to inspire confidence and collaboration in her students under extraordinary circumstances
On March 30, 2020, I entered a whole new world of teaching my kindergarten class. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators across the world have had to completely change the way we work. It took a week of training, webinars, and numerous Zoom meetings with my teaching peers to learn the technology platforms I needed to deliver instruction. The next step was designing curriculum and instruction using the new format. Lastly, we created a weekly schedule with both live sessions on Zoom to introduce new concepts and links to recorded lessons for online math instruction, as well as online instruction in English/language arts and writing.
The biggest obstacle to online math instruction is checking in on the students’ thinking. I made the mistake the first week of allowing all the students to unmute during the instruction and guided practice. It was a disaster. I could hear toddlers crying, relatives speaking, and even had a child telling me all about his new dress-up costume (a warrior). I needed to rethink my delivery method and how I asked students to respond.
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One advantage of teaching such young children is that they tend not to have the same kind of math anxiety that so many older students experience. Helping all my students maintain that healthy confidence during online math instruction, in an environment that’s new for all of us, has been a bit of a balancing act. Here’s what I’ve done so far.
Technology as a confidence booster
The effects of technology on my students’ confidence are fascinating. When my classroom was still open and we worked with pencil and paper, they needed a certain level of knowledge, such as how to form the numbers, what direction the math should go in, where to put the answer, and how to show their work. It was hard work for them and, as with all math learning at this age, they’re all at different levels in the same classroom. When they do math practice on a computer, however, the need for those other skills is stripped away and they seem so much more capable of flexible thinking.
One of my favorite technology tools is ST Math. It asks students to help a penguin named JiJi move across the screen by solving puzzles based on math concepts. Students move through it at their own pace, so everyone is working at their appropriate level.
The puzzles are designed to give students immediate formative feedback, so if they get the answer wrong, they can try again with new information. They may fail repeatedly, but they’re practicing problem solving and even developing a growth mindset. I like to help by playing along and telling them, “I don’t know how to play with JiJi. What could you try next?”
Each day, as I finish my Zoom Morning Message and daily assignment review, I now pose a mathematical question for the students to work on. Yesterday, the question was about JiJi going out for a walk. The students had to make a drawing of his walk and tell me how many houses he passed on the round trip. Soon my computer started alerting me that students had uploaded their work to our family platform, Class Dojo. I was so excited and relieved that they were able to show me quality thinking and drawings.
Inspiring perseverance and collaboration
Especially in this time of disruption, we talk about much more than addition and subtraction during online math instruction. We talk about how we have to have perseverance and keep working on hard things, then eventually they’ll become easier. We have conversations about how difficult it is to be a teacher because you can’t just tell someone the answer.
When one student is stuck on a puzzle, I may ask, “Who’s an expert on counting shapes?” Our shape-counting experts will raise their hands, and I’ll ask one to help their classmate. I love watching them help each other with it. They’re so kind to each other as they talk through the logic of solving these puzzles.
Looking to the future
Several of my students want to become software engineers when they grow up, so we talk about the engineering process a lot. Engineering is a good model of perseverance applied to the real world and showcasing role models from the field motivates students to work on math. We discuss how engineers are some of the smartest scientists out there and even they have to test their solution to see if it works: they try again, and then try again and again.
It’s nice to be able to tell students when they’re stuck on a problem, “You always say you want this kind of job. You like gaming and you like figuring things out. To do that, you need the ability to keep trying, even when it gets hard. Ready to try it again?”
“Yep,” they’ll say.
Now that we have lesson delivery and student response functioning smoothly, my next step is to have students record their thinking and explain their answers. I’m sure that will bring up a whole new set of challenges for all of us, but little by little, step by step, we’re making it work.