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Circulating the Classroom with Purpose

October 27, 2021 | By Dan Golub

Every teacher knows the power of circulating the classroom during independent or group work. It’s a great way to see what students understand, where they get stuck, and who needs additional support. But circulating in a class of 30 students is a daunting task; I remember feeling overwhelmed in my 8th grade math class because I could never meet with all students, I’d lose track of time, and I’d be afraid I would help certain students too much.

Now that Blueprint Math Fellows are supporting math teachers in a push-in model in some schools, I want to share my three times around the classroom strategy for circulating with purpose and efficiency.

Circulating, Round 1: get and keep students on task.

This first round should be quick, no more than 1 minute. Map out a walking path where you can efficiently see each student, desk, or table. The purpose of this round is simple: make sure all students are on task. The first step in pushing students to become independent learners is to be a self-starter. As you walk your route, acknowledge students who are on task (Thank you for getting started, Jenny). Gently redirect students who are off task (We’re working on problem #7, Chelsea). A soft tap on the desk may be enough. Do not linger on any one student; the purpose of the round is only to make sure all students are getting started! More on the relationship between the independent learner and Culturally Responsive Teaching here.

Circulating, Round 2: question and assign competence.

This time, walk your same route, but take more time, 3-5 minutes. The purpose is to guide and highlight student thinking without providing too much direct support. Ask questions that elicit student understanding, guide them to make mathematical connections, or require them to justify their thinking:

  • How do you know that this line has a slope of 2?
  • What similarities do you notice about problems 4 and 5?
  • Why does your answer of 24 make sense?

When students answer these questions, follow up with something that you wonder (Oh that’s a great point! I wonder what a line with a slope of 4 would look like…). Again, don’t linger too long on any one student or group. Terrance, a Lead Fellow with Blueprint in Pittsburg, CA notes that it’s important to touch base with many students:

“While they're working alone, have students explain a problem they've done to you regardless if it's incorrect or not. If their original answer was wrong then it gives them a chance to find their mistake, and if it's right then it reaffirms their knowledge.” - Terrance, Lead Fellow in Pittsburg, CA

If students are doing group work, assign competence by naming specific academic contributions of various teammates (Jared, I noticed you started to solve this problem by making a table! Can you explain to your group why you thought this might help?). This is a great way to elevate the status of students who have low confidence in math. This article by Jo Boaler goes into great detail about assigning competence in the math classroom.

Oh yeah – you may have to continue to redirect off task students! Maintain those high expectations!

Circulating, Round 3: support and challenge.

At this point, it’s time to directly support struggling students and groups. For this third round, provide learning scaffolds and ask direct guiding questions. You may have students reference a sample problem or go through a problem step-by-step with an anchor chart. These conversations can be done one-on-one or in small groups. For students that need a challenge, look to ground your questions in the activity and concept at hand before moving them on to an unrelated activity – depth over breadth! For example, if students are graphing lines with whole-number positive slopes, you could ask them to think about what a line with a fractional or negative slope might look like!

Time to stand up, design your path, and start circulating!