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Nerves . . . and a Plan!

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I love teaching, but I always get nervous as the new school year approaches. After almost twenty years, you’d think those last-week-of-summer-vacation jitters would be gone, but they aren’t. I love meeting my new groups of crazy teenagers, and yet I still agonize over how to start those first few classes. I worry about everything—that the summer has eroded away half of what I knew in June and that I’ll never be able to juggle the lesson planning, standards, exams, and activities in ways that keep the classroom on fire. (At least it’s not like those first few years, when I had to study twice as much as any of my students every day for the first few months of every year!)

What I love most about starting each year is studying up on new ways of doing things so that they’re fresh in my mind when the kids arrive. Last year, I worked on building Web pages for my classes, and the year before I dedicated myself to learning some computer programs that I’ve used in class ever since. I’ve got to plan something new every August, or the jitters will burn out my brain.

This year, I’m committed to increasing the number of ways I get kids working together in class. This is always hard to do in our math classes; if we’re not careful, kids get into the habit of working alone and then either arriving at an answer or waiting patiently for the correct result to appear. I want a classroom where people talk through solutions, argue with one another (or even with me!), and brainstorm ways to solve stuff that’s different from anything they’ve worked on before. Doing this right is easier with a few activities I can adapt, and that’s my August plan for jumping into this new school year—now only a few short days away!

I often borrow discussion strategies from my English Department friends on the English Language Arts side, but right now I’m using a document from Expeditionary Learning. It’s an appendix of protocols and resources (eponymously named “Appendix: Protocols and Resources”), free from New York State’s Education Department resource pages, EngageNY. Here’s a link: This site provides a ton of ways to get students thinking and discussing—exactly what I like in class!

The two activities I’m leaning toward right now are “Rank-Talk-Write” and “World Cafe.” Remember, these were designed with ELA in mind, but I’m co-opting them for math class. In “R-T-W,” kids examine a text (insert: fully-worked-out solution) and first summarize and then rank the work in different sections. We compare our summaries and ranking to start discussions about what’s important in our mathematics work. In “World Cafe,” small groups work on a problem together, with a representative taking notes on their discussion and work. The groups change, with each representative reporting on the work of the previous group. I like the similar structures in both: Kids interpret and then share out.

My goal—get kids talking about mathematics, and they’ll practically be teaching themselves. As long as I’m armed with a plan, I’m set. But still awfully nervous!



Greg StephensGreg Stephens,, is a high school mathematics teacher, department chair, and instructional leader for the Hastings on Hudson School District in New York. He just rotated off the Mathematics Teacher Editorial Panel but is keeping busy in a doctoral program at Fordham University in New York City. At the moment, his thesis topic is the impact of digital literacy on the high school mathematics classroom, but the hardest thing of all is picking just one topic to focus on!

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