I’m embarrassed to say this, I have a vivid memory of around my fourth year of teaching 5th grade and my second year of using number strings during a staff development meeting with a very patient and kind staff developer, “I’m not sure I understand why I am teaching strings. I do the string, the kids do it, we discuss it, there’s a chart up and then poof it disappears and I see no transfer.” It took me a while to understand the purpose and powerfulness of strings. Here are some of my initial questions about strings and my responses to those thoughts after much practice with strings.
1) I have to teach strings in addition to teaching a math period. Here’s the beauty of strings – they are quick and for a short amount of time they pack a huge punch. Make it part of your morning routine and they won’t seem impossible to tackle. Also, with time you will know how far to push in a string, when students are hitting a bigger idea or when you have taken them far enough.
2) The first few problems are so easy. They are easy intentionally, be patient, let early finishers practice patience and those who are shy or struggle shine with the first few problems in a string. Push for talk early on before it gets too messy so students are all on board and heading in a similar direction.
3) No one is writing anything down. They shouldn’t – at first, let them talk, to each other (and you check in and listen), to you. Students may be sparking to patterns and generalizations early on. If they need to write something down let them.
4) Only a few kids generalize the ideas, the rest blaze through the numbers and calculations. (See #3) Encourage the students to visualize what model they could use to represent their thinking or represent what the numbers are ‘doing’. Yes, strings support mental math and are fast sometimes, but reinforcing the model is key. Sometimes the calculations become a runaway train and you have to anchor your students back to the model.
5) Once the chart is up the students never use it again. Make strings part of other routines, homework, create your own strings, extend the string, teach someone how the model proves your thinking, create a context or story that makes sense for your model. Refer back to the chart throughout the unit and future units. Any time the chart of the string reinforces what you are teaching – use it. Just as students use different sources in proving their ideas in literacy, the chart of your string is evidence.
6) By the time we teach (insert concept) the students have forgotten what we taught in September. Bring back the strings that reinforce whatever has not solidified down the road. Use strings to preview the next unit you are going to teach to build a foundation for the students.
7) I don’t know if the students are making connections between the strings and the unit. Wherever there are opportunities use the curriculum and work examples to link back to ideas in the string. It could be through the use of a model, it could be to prove an idea. You could have students explore word problems, equations, contextual investigations, etc. and how the string charts in the room or in their notebooks help them display their thinking.
My initial skepticism in the meeting was honest. I think it took time and reflection for me to see the payoff with strings. Keep at it, be patient, use them, discuss and use models. Soon enough you will ask your staff developer for a strings only curriculum.