“We want to help our students deeply understand numbers in the primary years,” said my fellow Detroit Prep teacher, Shelly, at our school’s beginning-of-year curriculum night. “For example, you might know the number five as a kindergartener, but do you know that 5 is 3 less than 8? And 5 less than 10?” These questions and further discussions with Shelly made me think about how I teach math to my first grade students. I began to ask myself while planning lessons, “How can I push my students’ number sense here? How can I ask them to confront deeper questions about math than this word problem presents?”

One strategy I use to help my students more deeply expand their understanding of numbers and math concepts is through a 10-15 minute segment of my daily math lesson called a “Number Talk”. During our Number Talk, students are given one problem-- sometimes involving the strategy taught the day before with higher numbers, or a word problem, or a set of numbers that must be added together. After hearing the problem as a group, students have thirty seconds to think about how they will solve. Then, they go back to their tables to work with a group of 3-5 mixed-math-ability students. I only allow students to have one white board and one marker so that they must reach consensus as a group about how they will solve and which answer they will choose.

This practice allows students to deepen their understandings of previously taught strategies and concepts by explaining their reasoning to classmates and by applying math concepts to new problems. It also encourages students to use their deepening number sense by looking for patterns that might help them solve. For example, recently I gave students a set of numbers: 8, 4, 5, 2, 6, 5…. and asked them to solve as quickly as possible. Most groups chose to simply draw dots and counted the dots all-together, but one group noticed that they could quickly add the numbers by finding sets of 10: 8 + 2, 5 + 5, 6 + 4 and then adding those 10s together. During a follow up discussion, this group was able to share their thinking with the whole crew who asked questions and eventually joined in a chorus of “ohhhs!” and smiles once they understood the strategy used. I love seeing the look of awe and joy as students help each other reach new understandings in math! Math talks have made math more rigorous, fun, and communal in my crew.