How to Plan For Purposeful Conversations In Math

Talk is not cheap.

It may be if it is not purposeful, thoughtful, useful. But it can be powerful, meaningful, and a link to making sense of things… even math.

In Regie Routman’s compelling tome, Literacy Essentials, she wades into Listening, Speaking , and Questioning as a source to “elevate teaching and learning” (149). After seeing how important it is these past few years while teaching high school math to have conversation as part of the instructional equation, I know that I am going to have to do a lot explicit modeling and teaching this next year to help 6th graders have a healthy, usable framework for how to have math discussions.

That will be a lot of work and a lot of fun! I think it will set them up to continue to grow as thinkers and problem solvers. They will have the tools to handle talking about tuned mass dampers and the world’s tallest buildings, about icosahedrons and Fuller projections, and how to solve ratio problems.

On pages 153-154, Routman pegs how to promote and have “significant conversations.”

* Students today need “demonstrations and practice on how and why meaningful conversation is an artful necessity for optimal living and learning” (153).

* This is a “most important skill” (154).

* Our role? “Simulate, clarify and moderate the conversations so students do most of the talking” (154).

* These conversations should “promote debate, curiosity… thoughtful questioning… valuing multiple perspectives” (154).

* Regie again says on 154, “…if we want students to invest in complex thinking and sharing of ideas, they must believe their voices matter.”

Making this happen requires deliberate and intentional planning. Mrs. Routman gives several tools and steps in her “Take Action” section. I want to highlight one of the tools that speaks the loudest to me on this read. She says to “ensure your students and you have the tools to make productive discussions possible” (156) and then cites Talk Moves to Support Classroom Discussion from a book by Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz. These “moves” are discussion stems for various tasks within thoughtful and purposeful discussion. For example, this stem – “so you’re saying…” – can be used for helping frame and paraphrase what another student has said.

Sure, it seems simple. But for conversations to be civil and thoughtful, these types of discussion prompts have to be rehearsed in context. That may be a little forced at first. Awkward. Maybe even a little uncomfortable. The kids will need to see me model it. They will need prompts in their hands so they can practice. They will most likely need to listen in on each other to offer feedback. It may be emotional.

If they have to disagree or correct some math missteps, it almost certainly will be. Harry O’Malley, in a recent article, suggests that I could even plan for the emotions that I want them to have. What if I introduce, as he suggests, music in the background during a practice conversation – music that was specifically chosen to evoke a more predictable emotion?

Whatever my methods, I once again come away from Mrs. Routman’s excellent book about literacy chock-full of ideas about how to apply some of those core learnings in my 6th-grade math classroom. That’s not only something worth thinking about, it’s something worth talking about.

Author: Lee Shupe

I have spent several years as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher, 5 years as an instructional coach, a few years teaching alternative education and high school math. This next year I will be teaching 6th grade math. My wife of 27 years, whom I adore, teaches kindergarten. I spend my spare time engineering sound for my church and writing fiction (some of which you can find here:

10 thoughts on “How to Plan For Purposeful Conversations In Math”

  1. Great post Lee! I love how you beautifully connect the best literacy ideas with math, in particular, how to deliberately and thoughtfully demonstrate and promote ‘significant conversations.’ You advocate for important math conversations as a necessary “part of the instructional equation.” All of that made my heart sing, as “best practices” for speaking, listening, and questioning apply to all content areas. With admiration, Regie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I am eager (if not desperate), so eager, to learn how best to help kids learn how to have productive, learning-centered conversations. It is such an important life skill, not only for acquiring understanding about math or a book or an article, but for the larger Conversation about how to govern, how to support people, how to interact with our culture meaningfully. In short, I want to help my students learn to be effective listeners and contributing thinkers, problem-solvers. Those skills will help them navigate life. My slice just happens to be 6th grade math – so I’ll settle for a much more realistic goal of helping them navigate meaning there. Your book has a lot to say about how to help our kids “make sense” of most anything. It has been a thrilling and rich conversation here and I am grateful to you, your publisher, and Mr. Renwick for making this forum happen. Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lee, If all teachers–regardless of grade level or subject they teach– had your vision and commitment to raise students to become active, responsible students and citizens who are “effective listeners and contributing thinkers, problem-solvers”, we’d be doing a lot better educating all students. I will share your response with my publisher, editor, and Matt Renwick. Thanks for your wise words. Regie

        Liked by 1 person

    1. This book is so thought-provoking. We’ve had so many brilliant posts that have only begun to tap the riches of how Mrs. Routman is encouraging us to engage our students. Thanks for your thoughts! Keep Reading by Example.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lee, what a great post! Literacy needs to be a part of every content class. Thank you for seeing the value of reading, writing, listening, and speaking in your math class and for introducing me to emotional scripting. I wish you the best for the 2018-19 school year.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Nan! I really want to help my kids learn to navigate text – math text in my case. But that is all about literacy, right? Good practice for making sense, making meaning, should carry on in the literacy issues we face in math too. That not only includes text tackling strategies, it includes talking about learning. That can be taught. The emotional scripting idea is intriguing to me too! I can’t wait to work that in to our routines. All the best to you!


  3. Also fascinated by the concept of ’emotional scripting’! O’Malley’s three lesson examples of surprise, disgust, and anticipation are amazing ways of taking lessons to the next level and deepening engagement. I think about my elementary teaching days, when I would play calm, quiet music during independent writing time. Or the use of yoga and meditation during state testing week. I also used to play classical music pieces and have the students color their emotions, as a way to talk about mood, feelings, and music’s effect. But to consider students’ emotional reactions as part of lesson-planning, and to plan for it, is a truly fascinating idea! Can’t wait to hear more about how it works out and what your students think of these lessons!


    1. I can’t wait either, Jamie! Certainly, this wasn’t on my radar previously. Planning for and anticipating emotions is a whole new concept for me. Conversations are laced with emotions. Why not support some of that, if possible, while the students are having them? Thanks for your enthusiastic response!

      Liked by 1 person

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