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It's 9:53 p.m. on a school night, and I'm excitedly reading over my students' math work online. Far beyond the hours of the regular day, my middle school geometry students are engaged in mathematical exchanges online. As they complete their online participation assignment, they're also developing a conceptual understanding of mathematics and mathematical communication skills.
How did this happen? Our middle school has seven periods of coursework, not the usual six. Compared to a high school geometry class, my students are short seven minutes of instruction per day. By the end of the year, that adds up to one month less instruction. Originally, to fill this learning gap, I asked students to meet in groups outside of regular class time 10 times per marking period. After the first marking period, however, these groups weren't engaged in the rich mathematical discussions I'd hoped for. Students agreed—they weren't getting much from the experience.
My problem was two-edged: I wanted to extend learning outside my classroom and direct supervision, but I also wanted to maintain high-quality group work, with students engaged in their own self-directed Socratic seminars.
I decided to try networking my students using online discussion boards. Online discussions allow me to follow and assess my students' out-of-class learning and also provide some structure to their interaction. The program my school uses for web assignments and grades (School Loop) has a discussion application attached to every assignment. [Editor's Note: Google for Educators is a free platform available for educators who wish to network their students.]
Although we do not tend to have articles or text to read and discuss in math education, we do have discussions about homework problems. I assigned students a weekly requirement of one comment, question, or answer. Initially, students posted a slew of comments, but they were mainly technical questions like, "How do you make two-column notes?" Their questions were practical, but mathematically limited. Math content questions were often left unanswered.
I changed the assignment so that students are required to produce one question and one answer per week relating directly to their homework or homework topics. Now, a student posts a question, and other students answer the question with theorems, hints, and methodologies using mathematical statements. In just two days, I have seen my students really show that they are mathematicians and not just math students.
Our discussion boards have brought a whole new energy to my students. They seem more confident and more verbal online. I am amazed at the way they support each other through this math community, even appreciating each other for their responses and help. By the end of the week, almost all of my 63 students will have written a question and an answer and participated in academically enriching discussions.
However, access is still an issue. At least 15 students have accessed the site per night, but not everyone is able to do so. Like any assignment, kids forget or run out of time, and some get frustrated if they don't get immediate responses to their questions. However, we do provide time and access to the discussion board before and after school and during lunch.
The benefits of networking students extend beyond adding learning time. With our online discussion board, students are learning from each other. Not only are they more empowered to discuss mathematic reasoning, but they're also becoming more proficient mathematicians and better problem solvers.
Ingrid Moats is a math teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Alameda, Cal.
ASCD Express, Vol. 5, No. 18. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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