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April 19, 2021

Getting Better Together: PLC Leadership and Number Talks

Alicia Farmer and Kristin Gray are 5th grade teachers on opposite sides of the country. Kristin is also a math coach. Last year they worked together on Collaborating to Develop Mathematical Ideas. The original focus of their effort was to improve student learning related to fraction multiplication. Their work eventually expanded to focus on teacher professional learning, too.

Alicia and Kristin want to make visible the kind of supportive, professional learning conversations they’ve engaged in. The following is a Q & A between the two, with a focus on Professional Learning Communities and Number Talks.

Alicia: I’m the facilitator of a 3rd through 6th grade math professional learning community (PLC) at my elementary school. There are six members, and only a few of us actually teach the same content. We’ve chosen to focus on the Standards of Mathematical Practice and HOW we teach content in order to have a common understanding that ties us together. Throughout the past school year, we kept coming back to the idea of implementing a school-wide expectation for Number Talks in our intermediate classrooms to help our students progress. Through my previous work with you, I knew that your school was already doing this. Can you tell me a little bit about how your school chose this focus, and the expectations that you hold for all teachers around Number Talks?

Kristin: Great question, Alicia! A few years ago, as the elementary math specialists were looking over our students’ math data on two varying assessments, we noticed a huge discrepancy based on the format of the assessment. On the assessment in which students were simply computing answers and choosing a multiple choice answer, the scores were very high. However, on the hand-scored assessment in which the score is based on the students’ actual written work, the scores were much lower. Aside from this assessment data, as we worked with students in our Response to Intervention (RTI) groups, we continually saw things such as this:

student showing math work

This was problematic and made it clear that while students could procedurally solve computational problems, there were glaring misconceptions/misunderstandings in the conceptual understanding behind the operations. To address this need, we turned to Number Talks by Sherry Parrish. We chose this book as a resource because it offered the content knowledge teachers needed, as well as a ready-made classroom structure that got students talking and exploring varying strategies. We were hoping this moved both teachers and students beyond the mathematical procedures and into more conceptual discussions around the operations.

Change takes time, and it really wasn’t until the district committed to making Number Talks an elementary initiative that we started seeing meaningful change. Over the course of three years, the math specialists worked with teachers in their building PLCs to build both content knowledge, and a better understanding of the pedagogical implications of Number Talks in the classroom. On a district level, a portion of each district-wide professional development was dedicated strictly to Number Talks.

While there are no formal expectations, there were school PLC community expectations that have grown over time. When we first started, teachers were asked to try a Number Talk once a week to replace a Ten Minute Math activity from Investigations. This has since increased to at least three times per week, and the discussions around these experiences have become a focus of numerous PLCs. As teachers have gotten more excited about the student discussions in their classrooms, many have recorded their Number Talks to be watched during the PLCs as well.

Alicia: As a classroom teacher, I have been implementing Number Talks in my classroom four to five days a week. I have tons of anecdotes about the benefits of Number Talks for specific students. In our PLC, we like to have student data that helps us know whether our instructional practices are effective. Do you have any suggestions for our PLC on ways to collect data around Number Talks that will show they are improving student learning?

Kristin: I always wish we had filmed the students at the beginning of our journey with Number Talks and compared that to where they are now. I think THAT type of documentation would be the most beneficial data to demonstrate student learning. But, to better answer your question, I think the true data is listening to the students, whether it be via a live Number Talk or one that has been recorded. This “data” could take many forms:

It could revolve around teacher observations of what they see and hear in the classroom discourse, and connections teachers see to the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice and Content Standards. Or, the teachers could design quick, formative assessments to use with students as they progress through the Number Talks. It could be something as simple as, “Solve this problem as many ways as you can and circle your favorite strategy. Why did you choose that strategy?” It would be interesting to see how students think about problems before you start Number Talks and then at various points throughout the year, as Number Talks are being used more often. Reviewing these assessments at a PLC meeting would generate amazing discussions.

Alicia: Do you have any advice to give our PLC for implementing Number Talks school-wide this coming year? Was there any research that your school referenced when deciding to focus on Number Talks?

Kristin: My advice for you is first to have your PLC establish a vision for the use of Number Talks. It needs to be a team effort in which everyone feels invested and comfortable being open in their discussions about their practice. Next, make a plan and design ways in which you can determine the effectiveness of Number Talks. I suggest you make a plan that spans the course of at least one year. In our plan, we assigned specific book chapters to each PLC date. While it was always flexible to a point, it gave us a framework. The most important piece of advice is to remember that change takes time, and some days we will have great Number Talks, while other times they may fall flat on their face… and that’s ok. Just as we want our students to persevere, we must do the same as adults.

Although we chose to use Parrish’s Number Talk book with our staff, there are so many other amazing educators who have formed my foundational understanding of Number Talks. Ruth Parker and Cathy Humphreys have been my go-to sources in terms of learning about the impact of Number Talks in the classroom. Fortunately for me, they have recently released a new book that is on the top of my summer reading list: Making Number Talks Matter. I highly recommend reading their work, both past and present. Speaking of which, I’m excited to be working with Teaching Channel to design a Making Number Talks Matter book study group that will run this fall! It will be an exciting opportunity to involve educators from around the world in online conversations related to Number Talks. In addition to that text, many teachers in our district also found the book Classroom Discussions in Math very helpful in implementing talk moves to better facilitate discussions.

Alicia: My colleagues and I have lots of questions about how to sequence and plan Number Talks. How do the teachers at your school plan intentionally for Number Talks? Do you have any tools or strategies that I could share with my PLC?

Kristin: At first we just looked at specific operation talks by grade level, and thought about which were appropriate for their particular grade, and where they would best fit in the scope of their curriculum. For example, one of my first units of the year is Volume, so I planned Number Talks that focused primarily on addition and multiplication. That felt most connected to what my students would need throughout the unit and allow for the most mathematical connections to be made. As far as planning each individual Number Talk, I designed this planning guide to help teachers think deeply about the mathematical goal, as well as to anticipate students’ strategies of the chosen Number Talk:

Number Talk Planning Guide
Click the image to see and download the full pdf

Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz’s book Intentional Talk is also an amazing resource for planning talks around a specific purpose. In thinking about revamping my planning guide, “purpose” would be the piece I definitely need to add!

I am here for anything you may need, so don’t hesitate for a second to give me a buzz! Good Luck!!


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