# Amazing Classroom Story...Building a Community of Learners

Enjoy the following story from Shelly Scheafer's first grade classroom in Bend, Oregon, then sit in on a little Q & A session with this incredible Bridges teacher...

I'm teaching the fraction supplement (grade 1, A6) and added the making of sandwiches. Just when I thought we were done folding and cutting and eating halves and fourths one of my students said, "I would like to make a conjecture." (Yes, I teach 'conjecture'). So Jenny made the conjecture that if a shape has one line of symmetry it can be cut in half, and if it has 2 lines of symmetry, it can be cut in fourths. So after trying to prove/disprove this theory by finishing up another loaf of cheap Costco wheat bread and all of the white paper squares I had cut, the class was pretty much in agreement with Jenny. As I was trying to decide just how far I wanted to go with this idea, another student suggested we try different shapes and the paper shapes from the symmetry calendar markers were proposed. The kids got out the leftover shapes and a folding, cutting chaos resulted. The day, not the lesson, ended with one of my more inquisitive boys feverishly folding a circle and proclaiming, "I think I discovered infinity." I asked him to hold that thought until tomorrow.

I am constantly learning from my students. Maybe, I'll forgo tomorrow's paper circle pizzas and order real ones in at least an attempt to divert the infinity issue. [Smile.]

Over the past year, Shelly has contributed many, many ideas to the blog, as she uses Bridges to successfully promote classroom discourse and community, meet the needs of a wide variety of learners, and build mathematical confidence. Let's take a closer look as we ask her a few questions...

Question: Shelly, your story illustrates an incredible story of a classroom community at work. How do you promote real mathematical discovery and exploration, especially as you're building classroom community early in the year?

Shelly: Creating a community of learners is the foundation of a successful school year, and it doesn't happen overnight. I spend a considerable amount of time teaching, modeling, and reinforcing behaviors that facilitate appropriate social interaction, active participation, and mutual support. I wish there was a magical formula that could be written down, but I think it's more about teachers defining for themselves what they want to happen in their classroom and then providing time to model, practice, and reinforce those expectations. Students need to be taught how to have a conversation and what it looks and sounds like to be supportive of each other. In the beginning teachers may want to generate lists with their class on one of those topics, but for me, the key is to keep coming back to the topic throughout the year by taking five minutes at the end of a lesson now and then and asking, "How did we do today on having a conversation?"

For a community to work well, all members must respect each other. Students must believe that their ideas count. Some of the active participation strategies referred to often in Bridges are designed to promote this thinking. There are many references to "ask the students to give 'thumbs-up' when they have determined their answer." Teachers need to explicitly let students know this means, "What you think is important. I am giving you time to figure out your answer. Others will give me an unobtrusive signal when they are done so you can think without interruption." Think-Pair-Share is another prevalent strategy that when used often and with purpose, sends the same kind of message.

Question: How have you changed as a math teacher since beginning your career?

Shelly: For the first four years of my career I taught a classroom of students who were identified in the first 2-3 weeks of the school year as "not ready" for first grade which in stereotypical fashion meant a classroom of young, immature boys. I didn't know a lot about how children acquire number sense, but with my early childhood background I knew I needed to use materials that were hands-on and engaging. An amazing teacher and mentor introduced me to Box-it or Bag-It Mathematics (Burk, Snider, and Symonds), and I was hooked from the first lesson, not only with the materials, but also with the philosophy behind the program. I went on to teach kindergarten, first and second grades using Box-It and adding lessons from Math Excursions and Posing and Solving Problems with Story Boxes by the same remarkable authors. Then when the opportunity arose to pilot Bridges in Mathematics, I was thrilled. So in a real sense my math teaching has evolved along the same path that led to Bridges.

The pedagogy behind Bridges is rooted in the best research available on how children learn mathematics. The more I learn, the more I appreciate the lessons in the Bridges curriculum. I don't think teacher education programs in general do a very thorough job of preparing teachers to be effective math instructors. If you're used to a program where the teacher does most of the talking and shows students how to solve math problems, it's not necessarily easy to move to more of an inquiry-based approach. The biggest change in my math teaching has come from learning to let the students do most of the talking, having students pose some of the questions, and allow them to struggle with disequilibrium as they try to figure out solutions on their own. As the fraction story exemplifies, when children own the problem, the math takes on a life of its own.