Making Number Talks Matter in the South Lane School District

Like many educators, Marcia Trujillo often feels professionally isolated. Varied schedules and interests make it tough to connect with colleagues who want to deepen their knowledge of particular math topics she cares about. As a math coach for three elementary schools in the South Lane School District in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Trujillo has encouraged teachers to engage students in Number Talks—short, daily routines during which they solve problems in their heads, with no paper and pencil, and explain their reasoning. 

“The teachers whom I work with are busy, and time is always an issue,” she said. “When someone like myself goes in and tries to help teachers learn something new, it’s difficult because teachers often don’t have time to think, to plan, to try something new. Inevitably, I begin to second-guess myself: ‘Is this a practice that will positively impact student achievement and teacher knowledge over time?’”

Then, last summer, Trujillo saw on Twitter that teachers were participating in an online book study of Making Number Talks Matter (Stenhouse, 2015), Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker’s new resource for educators serving grades 4–10. Within a few weeks, Trujillo was collaborating with about 700 educators from fifteen countries who were reading the same book for professional study. Over several months they reviewed chapters together, wrote blog posts, shared and watched classroom videos, and conversed about commonly asked questions using social media platforms, including Facebook and the Teaching Channel. The experience proved transformative for Trujillo, who has used the skills from her personalized professional development to support other teachers in her district.

The interactive book study “takes me out of my isolated world and surrounds me with other people who love math or either are coaching other teachers in best practices or trying to learn something new,” she said. “Being able to read the book with other people, write about it, and also watch the videos helps me feel confident that I’m on the right track, and that the practice is worth teachers’ valuable time to learn about and to implement in their rooms.”

Such stories also inspire Crystal Morey and Kristin Gray, the two math teachers who started the collaborative book study of Making Number Talks Matter. Both are Teaching Channel Laureates who met last summer and discovered their mutual love of Number Talks. Morey, a middle school math teacher in Enumclaw, Washington, had worked with Ruth Parker for three summers through a state grant that supports professional development for teacher leaders. Gray, a K–5 math specialist in Lewes, Delaware, had presented on Number Talks at education conferences and built up a large following on social media. They decided to reach out to colleagues to see who might be interested in exploring the book together. The Teaching Channel agreed to host the free exchange—the first of its kind.

“I knew a lot of people would be interested, but as far as spreading internationally, I had no idea,” Gray said. “So many components about this make it unique. In book studies in the past, when you are in your school it’s always limited to what your colleagues have to say, what their experiences are, and what is the culture of your own building. This opens it up to so many different grade ranges and different school populations. You see the professional work as bigger than your school. It’s amazing to me to have the same focus point and so many people around the world using it but with different experiences than mine.”

Gray and Morey developed a study guide for the book. Gray also posted weekly questions about the book chapters to guide discussions and distributed a digital newsletter to recap what had happened during the week, along with related resources. Some teachers worked quickly through the chapters whereas others took a more leisurely pace, in both cases personalizing their learning. Through an online platform called Teaching Channel Teams, the collaborative enabled teachers who were working at the same pace and on similar topics to align. All of the participants could communicate through discussion boards and blogs and were able to upload videos, which could be annotated.

In addition, Morey interviewed Parker about the book and posted their insightful conversations. Morey also videotaped herself using Number Talks strategies with students and asked Parker to critique her work so that others could learn from it. After she posted the videos on the Teaching Channel site, other teachers began videotaping their own classroom exchanges and sharing them.

“They’re taking pictures of their Number Talks boards and posting them. Some started blogging for the first time because of this—they’re super excited,” Gray said. “I think it says a lot about Number Talks and how incredibly valuable it is to hear students converse about math. It just feels like a cultural shift in how we listen to our students and dive into their thinking.”

Gray and Morey said Making Number Talks Matter is such a rich resource because it reaches across the trajectory of mathematical operations and then extends them. Although the book targets grades 4–10, teachers below and above that span have found ways to adapt the strategies.

“The book allowed me to understand the operations even more,” Morey said. “It was a learning tool for me mathematically. It also allowed me to understand how to open up instruction and provide opportunities for flexibility in thought.”

Morey and Gray stress that Number Talks are not about teachers’ direct instruction but rather about their students’ mathematical thinking. Instead of trying to please the teacher by simply uttering the “right” answer, for example, Number Talks are designed to help students move beyond memorization, express their understanding as well as their confusion, and use a variety of problem-solving strategies so they can become flexible mathematical thinkers.

Brian Bushart, curriculum coordinator for elementary mathematics in the Round Rock Independent School District in Texas, liked the book so much that he decided to share it with a cohort of about thirty local educators, including K–5 teachers, instructional coaches, and interventionists. They started by meeting for two days last July and then scheduled nine more after-school sessions throughout the school year. To deepen their study, participants joined the Teaching Channel collaborative and participated in a Google Hangouts chat with Gray. Bushart also asked them to reflect on their experiences through blog posts and to share a related lesson. The goal was to have each of the participants reach out to at least one other colleague at his or her school, spreading the influence of Number Talks. So far, more than 150 educators in the district have participated in some component of the book study, including the online collaboration and related workshops.

The book was very practical, grounded, and approachable, Bushart said, and “turned out to be exactly what they wanted.” In addition, the Teaching Channel videos enabled teachers to see colleagues “trying out the things we were talking about. It was so current: ‘Hey, I just did this on Tuesday.’ It felt like they were in the book study with us. It wasn’t canned or stale.”

Gray and Morey hope to repeat the interactive book study in the coming year. They have collected all of the Twitter hashtags and blogs and responses to tell the story of their collaborative work.

“It’s exciting to me to see so many people being open and sharing, whether it’s perfect or not,” Gray said. “That’s so brave. I think it shows we all learn better together.”