5 Ways Math Word Walls Have Changed My Teaching

5 ways math word walls have changed my teaching

Math word walls have completely changed my teaching! From reminders to student independence to making the room an inviting place to learn, there are so many positives. In this post I want to highlight 5 reasons I believe so strongly in math word walls, especially ones that show examples and concepts in context. I'll also include photos of the word walls I've made covering grades 5, 6, 7 and 8 and Algebra, Geometry and Algebra 2. 
5th grade math word wall
(part of a 5th grade math word wall)

Reason #1: Greater student independence
You're at the board in the middle of an amazing lesson when a hand goes up. The good thing? It's not to go to the bathroom. The bad? It is about a concept not at all related to your awesome lesson. 
6th grade math word wall
(part of a 6th grade math word wall)
Students are forever asking questions that have nothing to do with what is currently happening. A lot of times these questions are long-held misconceptions or misunderstandings. Magic happens when those confusions are ironed out. Those are the "lightbulb moments" we all live for as teachers. With references on the walls, students can independently access the information that is clogging up their thinking so that they can get back to the current topic. The boost in confidence this gives students is reason enough for a word wall. 
7th grade math word wall
(part of a 7th grade math word wall)

Reason #2: Keeping the class on track
This one is the teacher version of reason #1. Word walls help keep the class on track. When I am able to point to a reminder on the wall and quickly get that one student over that speed bump, class runs so much more smoothly. I believe in answering all questions, especially those "you should have learned this 3 years ago" questions. It is an honor to have students ask questions that are not on grade-level and I never, ever, ever use "should" in my teaching. Asking these questions means that they trust me with their insecurities and this means so much to me. That being said, random math questions increase the possibility that the rest of the class will start snapchatting. Math word walls help me move faster through these questions so that my class stays on track.
8th grade math word wall
(part of an 8th grade math word wall)

Reason #3: Math word walls look good!
This sounds so superficial, but hear me out. In Broken Window Theory, the idea is that a small thing like a building's broken window sends a loud message that the building is not being cared for. The theory states that people will then break more windows because what does it even matter anyway? When a building is cared for, people know it. When we put even a little effort into making our classrooms warm and inviting, it sends a powerful unspoken message that we care about our students and their learning. It also sends the same message to parents. A principal once gave me some advice about parents. He said, "Parents just want to know that you like their kid." Now as a mom, I completely get it. 
Algebra word wall
(part of an Algebra word wall)

Reason #4: Connections to previous topics
Many of my students in Algebra 2 don't automatically remember what the x value at a y-intercept is or how to find the slope of a line. Even though Algebra 1 is not taught in my classroom at all during the day, I have Algebra 1 references on my wall. Over and over again I go to that wall to point to the vocabulary my students had seen 2 years earlier. By having those reminders there, more difficult Algebra 2 topics are more accessible. When one of my students forgets what a zero is, I can point to our linear graph's x-intercept and make the connection. Breaking hard problems down into easier examples is also a useful skill, especially during dreaded standardized tests. 
Geometry word wall
(part of a Geometry word wall)

Reason #5: Low floor, high ceiling
Math can be super intimidating for some kids, and those are the same kids who may not always feel comfortable asking questions. Math word walls create a classroom environment with a "low ceiling, high floor" where all kids can enter and then grow. I'm reading this amazing book called Mathematical Mindsets written by Jo Boaler that puts into words everything I want to be as a teacher. To be quite honest, between work, family and exhaustion, it's the first book I have read in probably 5 years. That is embarrassing to type, and at the same time I am so thankful my first book back is this book. I'm an exceptionally slow reader, which makes me think about my students with diagnosed and undiagnosed reading disabilities. If it's hard for me to read, how must it be for them? I make sure to make word walls accessible for all with visual references that are not too wordy. This allows kids with learning disabilities, English Language Learners and kids who are afraid of math to enter into the conversation. 
sketching polynomials reference for an algebra 2 word wall
(part of an Algebra 2 word wall)

If you are interested in giving word walls a try in your math classroom, you can find all of my math word walls though this link

Top Scaffolded Math and Science posts 

Difference of Squares through Pictures

Our unit on Quadratics is probably my favorite unit to teach. There is so much growth! One of the topics we cover in our Quadratics unit is differences of squares. I love looking at concepts through pictures (Have you seen the post Pythagorean Theorem Proof Without Words from Mrs. E Teaches Math? It's awesome.) The format of a factored difference of squares seems so simple, but I find that giving it context through pictures helps the concept sink in. 

Here we have a square with side length x.

I like the number 5, so I took a 5x5 square out of our big square. I may or may not get a little too excited about "difference of squares" literally meaning "subtract one square from another. The kids may or may not look at me like I'm crazy.

A Math Word Wall PEMDAS Mobile

PEMDAS mobile tor a math word wall

Some ideas seem so simple but for some reason have details that take forever to work out. This PEMDAS mobile was one of those ideas. For a long time I had wanted to find a way to show that division and multiplication and subtraction and addition can switch order depending on which of the pairs comes first in an expression. I love mobiles because they are dynamic. So a PEMDAS mobile just seemed like a good idea!

I know that PEMDAS is a little controversial and that a lot of teachers would rather use a different acronym, or maybe forgo acronyms altogether in favor of Order of Operations. In my experience, kids understand that brackets are used to line up grouping pairs, similar to computer coding. Still, if you like GEMDAS or BEMDAS, I included a G and a B can be subbed in for the P.

PEMDAS mobile tor a math word wall

The first thing I did was color then cut out the 8 pieces. I like rainbow theme, but you can color it to match the theme of your room. I printed on thick paper, almost like that oak tag we all used to pine over in the 1980s.

PEMDAS mobile tor a math word wall

Zero on the Rounding Roller Coaster and my Growth Mindset Moment

Rounding roller coaster in a 5th grade math word wall

This past week I had to do a fair amount of pride-swallowing to hear some critical feedback. This often seems to happen when I post on Facebook!

This time it was about this seemingly innocuous rounding roller coaster in my 5th grade math word wall. I left out the zero on purpose. After all, 1.70 is the same as 1.7, right? So we're not really rounding it. Right? 

Effective Frequency: Do we teach Slope too much?

One of the hardest high school math topics I teach in Algebra 2 is slope. I know what you're thinking-- slope is not an Algebra 2 topic. This is exactly what makes it so hard.

I have this theory, and you can disagree with me in the comments. My theory is that slope is so hard to teach because the word is so familiar. My students may see it first in 8th grade, then definitely in 9th grade, then again as a review in 10th grade before the state test. By the time they get to me in 11th grade, eyes are glaze over at the mere mention of the word. But very few have really mastered the topic.

So why is retention so low? My belief is that slope is either introduced too early before students are ready, and/or too little time is spent on the topic the first time it is introduced.