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Ideas for Engaging Participants

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This resource provides a range of ideas that may be useful for teacher educators as they design their professional development and early childhood courses. The goal of using these ideas across a variety of settings is to support participants to engage and learn together in ways that support collaboration, connection to personal experiences, and furthering their own teaching practice.

by Megan Franke

Getting to Know You

We want participants, even those who already know each other, to start the day by chatting with each other in ways that help them get to know each other and feel comfortable talking to each other. We find this influences the ways people participate during the day and also helps us get to know them. We might also use activities like these throughout the day to continue to support relationship-building with new participants.

early math pennyWe often start the initial day of a professional development institute or early childhood course with the penny task. We ask participants to take a penny from the collection we have on hand, and look at the year printed on the penny. They then share with each other something about themselves in relation to that year (or something about their family if the year is before they were born).

Often we want to have participants interact with those they would not typically sit with, to mix folks up so they learn from each other. One way we do this is to have participants find their “sole” mate in the room. They do this by finding someone who has the same shoes on. (Get it? solemate instead of soulmate.) We then pose a question for them to talk about that is either about the work we are doing together or about something outside of that work such as a recent favorite book of theirs.

Another approach is to have participants do an opening activity together that is related to the work we are doing together, but is less formal. They would do this with those they are not sitting with. This could be a review task (such as identifying the different counting principles) or a task related to classroom practice (for example, list where in your class day you would see opportunities to support children’s engagement in spatial relations).

Finally, you can do mathematics together. You could pass out a number to each participant and ask them to find a partner, which could be a multiple, a double, a set of three or four that make a pattern, and so on.

Questions for Reflection

Reflections provide participants an opportunity to think through big ideas, content, and their practice. When engaging together around the teaching and learning of math, we ask participants to reflect at the start and end of each session. Below are some possible questions and approaches to reflection.   

Below are some possible questions and approaches to reflection that you might use with participants. Reflections at the beginning of a new session are designed to connect to the previous session, the participants themselves, and their practice. Reflections at the end of the session often focus on the big ideas participants took away from that day's work. We invite you to take a look at what these questions might afford for participant reflection and consider how you might adapt these questions and approaches in response to your group of participants.

At the Beginning  

Individual written reflection:  What are your strengths as a mathematics teacher? What do you most want to learn during this professional development program?

Following written reflection, facilitate a pair-share conversation.

End of Initial Session

Individual written reflection on 5 X 7 index cards: List three or four big ideas that you are walking away with today.

Following written reflection, share at table groups. Collect cards before participants leave, read, and hand back to participants the next session to continue to list big ideas each session.

Start of Follow-Up Session (Option 1)

Individual written reflection (choose one prompt):

How is what we discussed yesterday similar to or different from the kind of math you already do in your classroom?

Given what you have learned so far what is one thing you would like to try in your classroom?

Think about a particular student struggling a bit in mathematics. How can the ideas discussed here help you think about meeting their needs?

After participants have written their responses, have them get up and share their ideas with one person. After a few minutes, have them switch and talk to another person.

Start of Follow-Up Session (Option 2)

Pair-share discussion. Take up an issue that came up the previous day that you think would benefit from additional conversation. For example, in response to engaging with Counting Collections

Yesterday we talked about Counting Collections being student-directed rather than teacher-directed. What does that mean to you? How, then, do you as a teacher support children's learning?

After the pair discussion, facilitate a whole-group conversation to bring it together for the group.

Read and Discuss

Reading about early childhood mathematics provides participants a reference they can return to and use to support their work. It also provides another opportunity for participants to discuss and engage with each other.

We ask participants to read (usually short excerpts) during PD or class. We want them to have the opportunity to synthesize what they are learning and have a resource they can refer to later. We find that it is important to encourage different ways to mark up the reading: post-it notes, highlighters, different colored pens, etc. This supports participants in making personal connections to the readings, which both helps them synthesize the reading material in relation to the PD or class session, serves as a useful tool when they leave the session (rather than just another reading that is distributed, but remains untouched on a shelf).

Many of the handouts on this website can be used for this purpose. We also provide access to downloadable articles in the "Additional Readings" resources, which you can access here: Counting, Spatial Relations, Measurement.

After reading, ask the participants to share with someone new what they took from the reading. End this with a large group discussion about questions or comments in regard to the reading.

Note about engaging a range of participants
We have had opportunities to engage a range of participants in a multi-day course, from first-year community college students interested in early education to experienced, mentor classroom teachers and faculty members. Engaging participants in reading and discussion gave the range of participants a common experience from which to engage, in contrast to other activities which those with more classroom experience may find that they have more to contribute.
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