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Setting Up Math Class for a Successful School Year

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Back to school time can be such an exciting time! Last week I was preparing an activity for professional learning that involved cutting a significant amount of lamination. It reminded me of my first year of teaching and how I spent most of my summer preparing decorations, name tags, and supplies so everything would be perfect for the first day of school.

While I still continued to focus on the physical environment of my classroom, in subsequent years I began to think about the instructional culture of my learning environment beyond the physical space and decor of my classroom. Looking back now, there are even more things I would change about how I handled math the first few days and weeks of school. Here are some tips based on things I both did and wish I did when I was in the classroom.



Tips for the first days of school

  1. Set clear expectations for engaging in problem solving and discourse

  2. Use progressions to bridge last year's content with this year's content

  3. Gather observational data before administering formal assessments

  4. Create a culture of high-expectations along with room for mistakes


Set clear expectations for engaging in problem solving and discourse

Effective teaching includes implementing tasks in which students engage in problem solving and discourse on a daily basis. Start this on day one! Let students know they are expected to grapple with problems, create representations, and collaborate with peers in math. This will set them up for the school year and is also a really fun way to do math on the first day of school.


Use progressions to bridge last year's content with this year's content

I have seen so many teachers spend significant amounts of time "reviewing" previous grade level content when students are actually ready for more. Rather than revisiting content already learned, use progressions to activate background knowledge to focus on the current grade's content. Many curriculum programs highlight these progressions.


Here are a few examples.

  • In kindergarten, students solve word problems for addition and subtraction within 10 and work on fluency within 5. In first grade, students solve word problems for addition and subtraction within 20 and work on fluency within 10. Use student knowledge of solving word problems within 10 to move into word problems within 20 and become fluent within 10 rather than spending an excessive amount of time solving within 10 and working on fluency within 5 in first grade.

  • Students learn the concepts of multiplication and division in third grade, but there are second grade standards that serve as scaffolds to prepare them for this. Students build arrays and partition shapes into square units in second grade. They use repeated addition and skip counting to find the total amount of objects or squares. They work with up to five rows and columns. Use this as a tool as you move into larger arrays and areas in third grade.

  • In fourth grade, students use their background knowledge of multiplication and division within 100 to operate on multi-digit numbers. Fourth grade teachers can promote strategies students learned in third grade as ways to begin multiplying 2, 3, and 4 digit numbers by single-digit numbers. Base-ten blocks that are heavily used in second grade for addition and subtraction can serve as a tool for multiplication and division in fourth grade. Fifth grade teachers can leverage strategies used in fourth grade as a bridge to supporting students in becoming proficient with the standard algorithm for multiplication by the end of fifth grade. If students do not know all single-digit multiplication facts, they can simultaneously build fluency in these basic facts while working with multi-digit numbers rather than being held back before achieving fluency expectations.


Gather observational data before administering formal assessments

Some schools, districts, and states require certain beginning of year assessments to be administered. That does not mean they have to be administered on the first few days of school. In fact, several assessment publishers actually recommend waiting about two weeks before administering the measures. Giving formal assessments too soon can create math anxiety in students and can also provide inaccurate data as students have not acclimated to being in school and activated the background knowledge they do have. Make sure to check policies and follow them as required while also holding off for students to get into the swing of the school year.


Whether particular math assessments are required or not, you can learn a ton about your students' math understanding in the first few weeks of school. Monitor student discussions and they engage in problem solving and tasks. Observe students as they play math games. Talk to students about their thinking and you'll learn quite a bit about where their understanding is in math.


Create a culture of high-expectations along with room for mistakes

Set high-expectations at the start of the year. The more students know you expect of them, the more likely they are to reach those expectations. Create a culture in which students engage in productive struggle, persevere in problem solving, and celebrate their wins. As students know it's safe to make mistakes, they will be more open to trying different solution paths and solving problems that challenge them. It's always harder to raise expectations later rather than starting off with them sooner.


Here are some of my favorite resources for setting up math class for the school year:

Free lessons and videos about math and mindset designed to inspire students. They are ideal for the first week of school, to get students excited for the year ahead, but can be used any time.

This Illustrative Mathematics blogpost highlights strategies for building a strong math community including setting norms and discussing what it means to learn math by doing math.

This Edutopia article shares things to avoid in the first few weeks of school, explains why, and shares what to do instead. Fostering a positive learning environment in the first weeks of the school year can set elementary students up for success in math all year.

This Edutopia article shares examples of implementing problem solving on the first day of school. When math students work together to solve logic puzzles on the first day of class, they learn to trust one another.



Enjoy setting up your math class for a successful school year.


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