My colleagues recently blogged about Noticing and Wondering in High School (Max – @maxmathforum) and Noticing and Wondering in Elementary School (Annie – @MFAnnie) and as I read both of their blogs, so much of what they write about applies to a middle school classroom. In my experience the biggest bang for your buck in using this strategy is engagement of all students! As I’ve worked in elementary classrooms the feel is a little different from middle school — the younger the students the more I feel I’m tapping into enthusiasm that hasn’t been dampened yet. As I work with fifth grade or sixth or seventh or eighth graders I often feel that there are more years of disappointment and/or disillusionment that have to be countered.

Middle school teachers (and, of course, also high school teachers) who are trying to encourage their students to embrace the Mathematical Practices need to have patience. It isn’t easy to change from a “No Child Left Behind” test-prep routine to a student-centered approach. Using I Notice, I Wonder activities can definitely help. For several years Erin Igo (@igomath) and I have worked in her middle school classroom to have students use Noticing and Wondering and last year we worked on using those two phrases in giving feedback to students. Erin worked on giving written feedback to her students Problems of the Week work using only the two phrases,
  • I notice … (and she valued one thing in their submission).
  • I wonder … (and she asked one question hoping students would reflect and revise/add to their submission).
As she worked on this she quickly emailed me what happened in class each day using these three prompts:
  • some gauge of student reaction to what you did (of course, from your viewpoint)
  • some prediction of what students will do during your next session
  • some reflection on what you predicted and what you now observed

It turned out that Erin’s quick (5 minutes tops!) reflection on what happened in class helped her work through the process. I found it interesting to read (and now I have something to look back on and refer to for this post) … but … Erin and I both agree that the time she took to write her own “teacher exit ticket” was most valuable for her.

Here are some excerpts:

day 4
Even after I wrote my summary of what happened today I sat in my seat for a minute and just took a long deep breath and told myself…it’s a process.  I asked myself,  what opportunity could I create for the student to engage?  I know the opportunity is just time…the students need time to adjust to the newness of this in my class and I need to allow the students to go with it!
day 6
I did notice that students were including more ideas in their explanation based on my “wonderings” from previous problems.
day 9
They seem to be more comfortable with getting on (the computer) and reading my replies…now the question is are they really reading my replies?
I know it’s a process and I have to remind myself everyday but I thought maybe the students would progress a little faster.  I do like what I am seeing.  I want to them to interact with each other more.
day 10
I predicted to see the same behavior but I am wondering if I could change my questioning to get them more engaged in the problems and rubric.  I want the students to talk more with each other about the work.
day 11
I think that student get off task because once they have finish the task that the teacher wants them to do…they truly don’t know what to do…because the teacher hasn’t told them.  I think students are programed to follow directions and the moment they feel like they complete a task…they don’t know what to do with their time.  Its almost like we (teachers) have programmed our students not to persevere….
Patience is definitely a virtue and is not easy to have.  I have noticed that with time my students have started to use my Notices and Wonders in their new explanations…without even thinking about it now.  I have to continue to tell myself that this is a new type of learning for the students that they are not use to and that it will take time to get use to…actually thinking on.
day 15
Students were engaged…but trying to finish..answering the questions instead of completely understanding method.  They just wanted to be finished!
[This is the activity Erin was using:  Ostrich Llama Count–Examining Solution Methods]
I thought they would read the method and try to figure out and understand it before answering questions…big mistake!!!  Next time I would structure it into smaller chucks to make it more manageable for the student and make the task feel like it was easier to accomplish.
Suzanne’s response to Erin on day 15
I love reading this! It proves the idea that you never know whats really going to happen until you try it and invariably it takes time to get it to work! (It’s as much a process as the process you’re trying to get the kids to embrace.)
And in December, 2010, Marie Hogan and I had our article Problem Solving–It Has to Begin with Noticing and Wondering published in an issue of the CMC ComMuniCator, the journal of the California Mathematics Council.