4 Questions To Ask Your Math Students That Build a Mathematical Classroom Community





This picture popped up on my facebook memories this week. Apparently it was the first day of my second year of teaching A DECADE AGO.


My maiden name was Cummings and I was teaching Algebra 1 and Math Support for 9th graders at Animo Watts Charter High School (now Animo Watts College Preparatory Academy). The school is located in South Central Los Angeles and has 100% minority enrollment and 95% students on free-reduced lunch just to give you a picture. I became a teacher because I wanted to help struggling high school students be able to graduate and go to college. And since math is commonly referred to as the “gatekeeper” subject, I knew that’s what I needed to teach. I absolutely loved my years in Watts and learned more than I could ever have imagined about teaching intervention math in urban schools.

After a few years teaching in Watts I decided to move back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I went to college, and return to the high school where years prior I had found my passion for teaching as a substitute teacher and AVID tutor, Yerba Buena High School, YB, located in East Side San Jose, CA with 99% minority enrollment and 74% of students receiving free-reduced lunch.

My first year as a full time teacher there I met a spunky brand new TFAer also teaching math. At our new hire orientation I could see both the excitement and complete overwhelm on her face. I shared resources with her and checked in with her often, I like to think I mentored her well. She has grown to be one of the most passionate educators I know, still giving her all to her students at YB and fighting hard for equity in education.

This year - this crazy year - she allowed me to observe her on the first day of remote learning. I was humbled that she would allow me into her zoom room as she set up her culture and tone for the year. And just as expected, she was amazing. I want to share 4 thoughtful questions she asked her students that I know will create a positive classroom culture in her math class all year long.

These are great first day activities for middle school math or first day activities for high school math classes. These are especially crucial questions to ask if you’re teaching intervention math or students with disabilities in math. Before you can get to math intervention teaching strategies, you’ve got to create a safe and positive classroom culture. These questions will help you do it.

She asked this question as a “mic check” since no students had their videos on and I loved hearing every single student introduce themselves. With the switch many of us are making to remote learning, it’s easy to forget some of the “normal” things we typically do on the first day. That includes asking for nicknames. Imagine if a student no longer identifies with their birth name, or maybe they were named after someone they’d rather not be associated with, or they simply want to create a new identity this year. It’s essential we ask our students what they prefer to be called so they feel known, seen, and heard in our classroom.


She asked the following 3 questions in a google form to gather and display data to everyone. I LOVE THIS QUESTION. If you teach intervention math or special education math or generally students who struggle with math, they may be incredibly nervous and hesitant about taking math again this year. By asking them what they wonder about this class, you’re allowing them a chance to share that with you and get your validation that it’s going to be different, it’s going to be better, this year with you.


Such a great question! This is a great way to get to understand more about your students’ motivation in your math class this year. And if you’re teaching intervention math or students with learning disabilities in math, this sort of question is essential to making this year a success for them.


If you’re looking for math intervention strategies for struggling learners, why don’t you start with asking your students? Ask them what they need you to do to help them succeed this year.


Asking these questions of your students at the beginning of the year, especially if you teach students who struggle with mathematics, will have a HUGE payoff throughout the year as you seek to change their math experience and foster a classroom of inclusion, effort, and perseverance. I hope you’ll give these strategies a try in your intervention math class or your secondary special education math class.


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