Primary Thieves, Part 1

  • Primary Thieves, Part 1

    By Jamie Duncan, posted October 24, 2016 —

    As a first-grade teacher, I lived in Literacy Land for the first thirteen years of my career. Nearly all primary-grade teachers live there. It’s a great place to be; learning to read, write, and comprehend is critical. Sure, we took day trips to Math Land, but it was less comfortable for us as teachers. We weren’t really sure where Math Land would take us next. We had heard that the older grades were throwing math parties,* but we weren’t invited. So, we just kept to ourselves, doing what we thought was best: using manipulatives and modeling for students in whatever way we (or the publisher’s curriculum) thought they should solve problems.


    Within only the last three years have I been invited to the math party, and I all too easily could have checked the decline box on the R.S.V.P. I’m here to say to all primary-grade teachers, “Stop waiting to be invited to the math party!”

    *For the purposes of this post, let’s define a math party as an event where people come together to learn more about both mathematical content and pedagogy specific to the teaching and learning of mathematics.

    There are always going to be more intermediate, middle school, and high school math parties—unless you yourself change that. Yes, you. Maybe not right away but definitely in time. We, as primary-grade teachers, must take advantage of what these parties have to offer. How do you imagine that improving your own content knowledge would affect how you teach mathematics? What instructional practices do middle and high school teachers use that might work in your classroom?

    Go to those math parties with or without an invitation! Put on your Robin Hood hat with a feather in it and be a thief of learning if you must. Don’t wait for something geared toward your grade span to continue learning more about math. I have been and will continue to be a thief of the math world. Aside from working to improve my level of content knowledge, I have stolen many instructional practices from the upper grades, most recently Clothesline and Fraction Talks. What the upper-grade teachers may not realize is that the perspective you bring to both the classroom and to the professional development event is crucial. 

    I recently attended a professional development experience offered by Ryan Dent, Shannon Andrews, and Chris Perez titled, “Linking Proportional Relationships to Algebraic Thinking.” Yikes, right?! Initially, I didn’t plan on attending. For one thing, I didn’t think I was allowed to go, since it was for middle school teachers. Second, what would I even do there? Would I remember how to solve those types of problems? Would the middle school and high school teachers laugh at me? I truly hate to say it, but my own version of math anxiety could have kept me from going; even though I try incredibly hard to bury it and leave it in my high school teacher’s precalculus classroom, where my math career ended. I’m sorry, Jo Boaler; I’m trying. It is extremely powerful to make peace with the fact that we don’t know all there is to know about math or teaching and learning. In fact, I think many would agree that it’s admirable. 

    In short, we ended up having teachers from all grades at the professional development session. The crucial benefit that surfaced for all of us was how much learning the progressions helped us understand math. When we learn about how a concept develops over time, we are learning more about the nature of math itself. Think about how you view the math you are going to teach your kids. Do you focus on what it is you want students to do or understand? Both? How do those two differ? Where does the balance lie? How does one idea in mathematics connect to another? Over the last few years, I have attended a lot of math professional development sessions, and trust me when I say that the times when I steal ideas from upper-grade sessions, I learn and grow, and so do my students. 

    We need to come to these workshops with the mindset of a thief. Consider stealing ideas like the following: 

    •    What more can I learn about math, and how will that affect how I teach my students?

    •    What instructional practices do the very best middle and high school teachers use?

    •    Is there a way I can tweak those practices and use them in my classroom while keeping them developmentally appropriate? 

    After you have acted as a thief, you will find a time to repay the favor. Remember that Robin Hood hat you put on? Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Now it’s your turn. Ask yourself, How can I share what I am learning with other primary teachers? What do I bring to the table? What can I do to help support middle and high school teachers? The answer to these questions may shock you.

    Please add your thoughts to the comments or connect via twitter

    2016_10_24_Duncan_au_picJamie Duncan has served as a classroom teacher for fifteen years. She is a master learning facilitator in her classroom engaging all students in the Standards for Mathematical Practice through 3-Act Tasks, facilitating meaningful discourse, Number Talks, and building procedural fluency from a foundation of conceptual understanding. Jamie is a contributor to math educators around the nation through the Math Twitter Blogosphere (MTBoS). She writes at, where she shares her learning journey and works together with teachers from across the globe. Her passion for meaningful learning has led her to present for her school district, the California Math Council–South, and NCTM’s Annual Conference. She is interested in learning more about student thinking and how that grows to mathematical fluency.

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