the first six weeks of math

In many elementary schools, the first six weeks are a time to build classroom culture and set up systems and routines that set the tone and prepare students for the rest of the school year. 

This usually includes some basics, like get-to-know-you activities; creating or unpacking a set of classroom norms; and exploring students’ “hopes and dreams” for the school year. It might include practicing routines, like how to transition from the tables to the carpet, or how to participate safely in a fire drill. 

But after a few days of community-building and routine-practicing, most teachers begin to itch to get started on academics. 

This is where the first six weeks begin to get a little blurrier. For novice and experienced teachers alike, it can be unclear what to do when we’re “not into the curriculum yet” but are supposed to be preparing students to engage successfully in academic content. 

I’ve seen this look fuzziest during the math block, where it’s all too easy to fall into a vague learning target like “getting students back into math” with a worksheet from TeachersPayTeachers and much harder to determine exactly what a productive “first six weeks” math lesson looks like. 

This is where the Standards for Mathematical Practice come in. The Standards for Mathematical Practice can be an excellent guide (a scaffold, if you will!) for planning beginning-of-the-year math lessons that cultivate the mindsets and community practices that enable powerful mathematical learning throughout the year. 

Let’s explore what a “first six weeks” lesson might look like for a few of them: 

MP.1: Make Sense of Problems and Persevere in Solving Them

It can be powerful to begin the year with identity building conversations around problem-solving and perseverance in the math classroom. Math identity and “math agency” ( a sense among students that they have the power to shape their success in the math classroom) are associated with stronger learning outcomes, and the first six weeks are an ideal time to lay the groundwork for these conversations. 

This might look like a simple journal entry and discussion around a question like, “Describe a time when you didn’t understand something in math and how you came to understand it.” 

Students might analyze an artifact of student work from a previous year (or even a video clip from a lesson!), and discuss how that students’ approach might impact their math learning over the course of the year. 

You might also consider using the first six weeks to intentionally challenge biases about who can engage in mathematical problem solving. Research on race and gender gaps in STEM has suggested the power of positive role models and meaningful real-world math contexts to reduce implicit bias and motivate more equitable engagement. Introduce a few mathematicians from historically-marginalized backgrounds, starting particularly with those who share core identities with your students, and learn about how they persevered in making sense of important mathematical problems! You might also explore ways that mathematicians and engineers have used math to contribute to important real-world issues, like protecting the planet or designing trains. And to consider their own goals: How might math help you solve an important problem in your community?

Suggested Learning Targets: 
We can describe our strategies for persevering in math. 
We can analyze how different approaches to math challenges affect learning. 
We can explain how (insert mathematician) made an impact on the world using math. 

MP.2: Use Appropriate Tools Strategically 

This one is simple. The first step to “[using] appropriate tools strategically” is to use them safely, purposefully, fairly, and efficiently. 

Consider all of the manipulatives and math tools you’ll be using in the first half of the school year and brainstorm the key features of effective classroom use (Make a list! For K-2, I suggest starting with: mini whiteboards, unifix cubes, place value blocks, and mini-rekenreks; for upper Elementary, you might include a math notebook and fraction tiles). 

Next, consider what the most important elements of safe, purposeful, fair, and efficient manipulative use looks like. You might want students to pause to double check that the numbers of manipulatives match the number in the problem; to use manipulatives in kind, helpful partnerships to reduce the chaos of tiny objects; or to take turns allowing other students to grab their manipulatives out of the bin first.

If students will be using unifix cubes, you might want them stored in sticks of ten (I like to ask students to keep them in five of one color, five of another). If students will be using place value blocks, you probably want them to stay categorized by value. 

For each manipulative, plan an interactive model lesson (spread these lessons over the course of a week or two), using problems pulled from the first few lessons of your school’s curriculum. Ensure that students get a chance to articulate the characteristics of effective, purposeful manipulative use – and to describe why this matters for their learning. 

Suggested Learning Targets: 
We can use (insert manipulative) purposefully and efficiently to support our math learning. 
We can collaborate kindly and effectively using (insert manipulative) to support our math learning. 

MP.3: Construct Viable Arguments and Critique the Reasoning of Others

Setting norms for mathematical discourse is a crucial part of the first six weeks of school. You might consider the top 3 or 4 discussion protocols you’ll use during the year and build mini math lessons around each of those (I’d suggest starting with turn and talk, table collaboration, stand up – pair up, and whole-group rug discussion). 

For each lesson, use just one chunk of the first lesson in your school’s curriculum, and focus the learning target on effective, collaborative use of the discussion protocol. (Tip: Use the speaking and listening standards for your grade to guide your expectations!) 

Consider the criteria for success of each discourse protocol, and what the most common pitfalls might be (e.g. in turn and talk, not really listening to each other; at their tables, just giving each other the answer). Build your lesson around ensuring that students anticipate these pitfalls and can construct viable arguments about why using these discourse structures well is so important! 

You might also use “Exemplar” or “Nonexample” analysis, asking students to critique the reasoning on an imaginary students’ written work (again, using a snippet of the first lesson or two in the curriculum as your starting point). “What did Gubby do well in his analysis? What is missing?” Common student pitfalls might include: not explaining the why behind their thinking, or being vague instead of using the specific referents of the problem. Your nonexamples should get students noticing those pitfalls and preparing to avoid them in their own argumentation. 

Suggested Learning Targets: 
We can turn and talk collaboratively to deepen our understanding. 
We can collaborate at our tables to support and push our peers’ thinking. 
We can provide clear, specific, detailed explanations of our math thinking. 

MP.4 and M.6: Model with Mathematics and Attend to Precision 

Intentional, explicit practice about modeling with precision can support young students in using models more effectively and accurately in their work throughout the year. 

Consider the most common accuracy errors you see in young students’ mathematical models: not labeling values on an open number line; drawing a long string of circles that are easy to miscount instead of modeling in a ten-frame formation. 

This practice can sometimes be combined with early-stage practice using a math class tool, like mini whiteboards or students’ math notebooks. 

Suggested Learning Targets: 
We can model our mathematical ideas clearly with accurate labels.

Standards for Mathematical Practice All Year Long: 

These lessons are not intended to be one-and-dones, but rather to set a strong foundation for conversations that will last the entire year.

Throughout the school year, you might use part of your lesson debrief to invite students to reflect on one of the standards of mathematical practice: “How did we use modeling to represent our ideas during math today? What strategies did you use to persevere in problem-solving with this week’s math topic?” With older students, you might even use a fishbowl structure to reflect on how students are using mathematical evidence to “construct arguments and critique the reasoning of others”. 

The first six weeks are the perfect time to set the tone for mathematical practice in your classroom, to make these practices visible and explicit for students, and to set students up for more meaningful learning in the year ahead. 

PS And don’t forget to share with your students the long view of what that learning will include! More on that in this post about big-picture planning!

To Learn More About:

The First Six Weeks of School

  • Check out the resources shared (and the book!) here

Standards of Mathematical Practice:

  • Achieve the Core’s excellent guide here

Fostering More Equitable Math Classrooms:


start with the big picture

thoughts and tools for instructional planning beyond the lesson

i recently saw a discussion about whether we should start with the lesson or start with the unit when planning instruction.

is this a question? deep learning doesn’t come in random bites that can be contained and planned in 55 minute units. meaningful learning takes place over time — cumulatively woven together in a tapestry of rich text, conversation, writing, reflection, experience.

the answer is DEFINITELY definitely start with the year (or bigger – the school experience, beyond our grade teams) — then the unit — then….

HOWEVER: we teachers are not often given the right tools for planning the big picture first! particularly if we don’t have strong curriculum adoptions.

most of our teacher preparation programs focus almost exclusively on the infamous lesson plan, and many district unit-planning documents are a wild disorganized scroll-o-rama containing the list of the literacy standards covered in the unit (surprise! it’s all of them!) and the content topics covered (just kidding! you know they don’t give a sh*t about science or social studies) and maybe some of the books they used to use for this unit but actually probably don’t use anymore.

(see: my life as a first year teacher with a 19 page google doc that i couldn’t make heads or tails of. this last paragraph was just copy-pasted from my 2014 diary.)

so i want to share some useful (ahem and extremely simple) tools that i’ve developed over the years, with a few recommendations:

  1. start with the whole year! the WHOLE year. the biggest picture. break it down into units or month, but keep the big picture really clear and simple — bullet points, no standards or objectives jargon. a one pager is no place for your measurable verbs — we just want the gist. you can find a year-long curriculum map on my lil resource page here.
Keep it simple! This template is linked on the Resources page of this site.

2. once you have your units or month-by-month laid out, it’s time to dig into unit planning. this should outline your long term content and literacy targets, your key assessments and final products, the anchor texts that sit at the heart of the unit, the fieldwork or expert visits that will bring your unit to life (more on this from the brilliant mind of Ron Berger and EL Education educators here). i find the template below to be the most useful way to organize and think through these medium picture instructional choices. BUT without the week by week breakdown, this is way too vague to be actionable.

Unit planning (or what EL folks call Expedition Planning — because learning is a JOURNEY) helps you articulate how you and your students will build towards something deep, meaningful, and important. It is not written in stone — but it’s thinking that we need to do ahead of time.

2b: tl;dr IMPORTANT PART HERE: when you plan units, the MOST useful unit and underutilized unit of planning is the WEEK. make your life simple, make your planning clear: break it down week by week! give yourself a clear topical sense of what you and your wonderful students will be reading, writing, thinking about each week and how it builds week by week. (Please do NOT make each week focused on a given literacy standard. For more info on that, please read Text at the Center (Liben/Pimentel) and this piece on content-rich literacy.)

once you have your week-level learning targets, or “headlines”, mapped out, a one pager capturing the broad strokes of each lesson can a really manageable, high leverage way to build toward individual lesson plans.

this kind of weekly one pager is a great starting point for daily lesson planning — particularly if you use a strong set of instructional routines that make the flow of individual lessons fairly consistent.

3. make the big picture VISIBLE to children — and engage them in thinking about where they are going with their learning!

i didn’t see a syllabus until the spring of my senior year of high school. WHY? why do we withhold this info from students and their families?

if you have a curric map that scopes out the broad strokes of the year, share it with families. this can be a great ‘back to school night’ activity — offering families something more concrete to discuss and ask questions about. i like to give kids a one pager “syllabus” of the major topics we’ll learn that year during the first week of school. they annotate it with question marks, exclamation points, hearts — and discuss it with their classmates.

likewise, anchor charts mapping out the big picture of the school year or the long term learning targets of a unit can give clarity and a sense of purpose to everyday lessons: all of this is building toward something.

big picture planning is so important because it holds us accountable to kids’ long term learning and growth beyond just our classroom. this is part of why high quality curricula can be so powerful — but so many of our schools leave teachers to figure it all out on their own.

whether that’s you, building the plane as you fly it, or you’re managing a hefty curriculum and trying to make sense of it — these tools are for you.

the first week of school, students annotate and discuss a syllabus of the school year with the things they are most excited to learn, areas they think they’ll want more help, and questions they have about what they’ll learn in 4th grade. this syllabus doesn’t contain ALL of what we’ll learn (some things will emerge organically in the course of the year — in this particular school year, for example, we ended up doing a deep-dive on yemen that came of an impassioned class discussion about current events and culture, which certainly wasn’t mapped on the ‘syllabus’.) but it gives me and them a sense of clarity about where we’re headed

PS please let me know what you find most useful, how it works for you, and if you have questions about how to leverage these templates to deepen learning with your students!