Math = Noise

There’s a difference between good noise, and bad noise in a classroom. Bad noise is off task, bad noise can lead to disciplinary problems, bad noise is disrespectful. We all know what that looks and sounds like. But what is good noise?

Kids talking in class is noisy. But if they’re talking about the work, that’s good noise! Are they talking about the work? Are they using vocabulary? Debating strategies? Defending opinions? That’s good! That’s what you want!

Good noise tells your work is getting done, and learning is happening.

One year I had a brand new co-teacher, right out of school, and she used to complain that the kids were talking so much. They had never done that when she was in school, she explained, and she knew it wasn’t allowed, so why did I allow it? I told her to listen to what they’re talking about. So she did.

The next day she came to me on a prep and exclaimed “You’re right! They were talking about math! Every single one of them was talking about the assignment, strategies to approach the work and their answers!”

That was a huge eye opener for her.

There is a ton of research that shows students learn best in a collaborative environment. Acquiring knowledge is more effective and productive when you can discuss the work in a group of peers. Some may understand the work better than you, so they can explain it to you. Others may not understand as well, so you have the opportunity to explain to them, which enforces your understanding. And this process can get loud.

The key is to create carefully crafted opportunities for student collaboration. This means structured conversations where students know how they are expected to work in order to answer a rich problem with multiple steps. (See my post on structuring collaborative group work, or my post on collaborative activities for more on that).

When your class gets noisy, stop and assess. Find a space where you can survey the whole room and scan the room. You’re looking and listening for 3 things: body language, language and work product.

Body Language: What do kids look like, physically? Are they leaning into the work, placing themselves in a way that they can see the work they are doing? Are they holding the necessary tools (calculators, rulers) in the correct way? Are they pointing at a graph to make a point? Are they referencing their notes or a teacher chart on the wall? Are they engaged?

As long as body language is telling you kids are tending to the work, they’re on task. If they are leaning back, feet up, lounging, playing with the markers, looking out the window, checking their phones or doing something off task, that’s a group you’ll need to check on.

Language: Stop and listen to the noise. What are the kids talking about? Do you hear vocabulary words? Do you hear math words? Or do you hear conversation about other things? If I hear things like “she was so mad!” or “he didn’t even call me” or “my mom….” then the conversation is off task. But if I’m hearing “no that can’t be the answer because….” or “I used the quadratic formula and got 3, what did you get?” or “wait, what did you do there? I didn’t get that.” Then they’re talking about the work.

This can take a little practice. Sometimes it’s best practiced by visiting someone else’s class so you can just focus on listening, and not managing the class.

Work Product: This one is easy. As you walk around the room, is the work getting done? Do you see work? Do you see calculations? Do you see graphs? If the work is getting done, your second question is “is everyone participating in getting the work done?” As long as everyone is engaged and the work is getting done you’re on the right track.

Of course some times it’s necessary to take the noise level down a bit, even if it is about the work. This can happen with a simple “5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1, thank you everyone, good work, let’s just take the volume down a little.”

I like to play music in the background, and I tell the class “if your conversation gets so loud that we can’t hear the music, we need to bring it down”.

So re think your definition of “noise” – maybe it’s actually just engagement.

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