I introduced number talks to my school during pre-planning three years ago. I read the book the previous summer and knew it would be a success if I could just get my teachers to try it. The challenge for me was to find a reason for them to want to try this new thing called number talks in the midst of all of the other new initiatives. I looked at what we had been doing over the past year and a half and tried to find where these number talks would fill a need. When I discovered that need, several (more than I expected) teachers wanted me to introduce number talks with their classes immediately – during the first week of school!
The need I found was to improve strategies for computation to help students achieve higher strategy stages on the GloSS assessment. Teachers had noticed that students were getting stuck on stage 4 (basically, the majority of students – even those in 5th grade – had one strategy for everything, counting on). They were stuck because we continued to assess, but hadn’t looked at the data gathered from those assessments to come up with a course of action to help students. The ideas were out there and we had discussed strategies before, but few teachers were implementing these ideas daily. We wanted the pig to grow, but we were weighing it instead of feeding it!
When I started introducing the number talks, teachers were very interested and many were excited about out how this would work. I worked with each teacher/class for an entire week. For four days, I would model the number talks. On the fifth day, the classroom teacher would take over and I would observe. We would meet after to talk about the experience and we would discuss how the teacher would move forward from this point. Sometimes these were difficult conversations. What I learned from these discussions was that many teachers thought of this as a magic bullet, where teachers would talk about strategies first and then have students practice a few verbally. This myth was dispelled as soon as I walked into the first classroom.
I introduced number talks to every class that year. Some teachers wanted to see them, and then decide whether to use them. Some knew they wanted to use them, and some just wanted 4 days with someone else teaching for 20 minutes. And there was one skeptic, who did number talks with the expectation that they would not work. And that was ok. It wasn’t mandatory, just a strategy. A tool to use to help kids help themselves.
I would check up on teachers every so often to see how teachers and students were doing with their number talks. Some had stopped doing them after a while, some only did them 3-4 days a week, but there were some… Some who saw the value right away and did them religiously (I apologize for this blatant disregard of separation of church and state) every day. These teachers took number talks and ran with them! They not only used them to help students develop strategies, they used them to assess those strategies. They were asked to share. And they did. During professional learning, faculty meetings, and through emails, other teachers began to notice that the number talks were beginning to show results.
Teachers were amazed, and so was I, when one month after introducing number talks to a third grade class, I walked in just to see what was happening and saw student after student mentally adding two three digit numbers using strategies based on place value, friendly numbers, and compensation. These were a mixture of Special Ed., EIP, Title, and Gifted students. They were all at different places in their understandings of the strategies they were hearing and using, but because they were developing the strategies, they were empowered to keep trying to use them and develop new strategies that were efficient (quick, easy to think about, and work every time).
The teachers who did the number talks consistently and with fidelity were the ones whose students reaped the rewards. When the teachers assessed with the GloSS at the end of the year, those teachers were the ones tracking me down to tell me their stories. I heard things like:
“All but two of my students went up 2 strategy stages. The others went up 1. It has to be the number talks. That’s the only thing that really changed this year.”
“Number talks was a great way to really listen to my students and hear what they know. The GloSS makes more sense now.”
“I can’t believe what my lower students said during the last GloSS assessment. They really used what we did in those number talks.”
“Number talks really helped my kids with their strategies, and it shows in their other math work. I love number talks!”
Number talks have been a huge success for all teachers at my school who have used them with fidelity. We’ve hired some new teachers this year and they seem just as eager to learn about number talks as the teachers I worked with a few years ago. Now, with all of this experience and several number talks experts, our school can offer more support than ever to these new teachers. We’re all expecting the best.
Oh, and remember the skeptic. . . well, she’s one of the experts now!