Why Math Walls?

In talking with teachers about teaching mathematics the one concern that I often hear is that our “new math” is so dependent on language.  Teachers know that the students now need to be able to read, and write in math class in order to be successful and many children are struggling to do so.  Teacher’s often ask “What should I do?” or simply throw up their hands up in the face of this challenge, and I admit it is a challenge.  This challenge is one I have faced my entire career, not just in mathematics but in everything.  What do we, as teachers, do when a student doesn’t have the tools to successfully complete a task.  We teach.  As a teacher if I have a student who can not tie their shoes, I teach them how to tie their shoes.  If they don’t know how to open their duotang, I teach them how to open their duotang.  If they don’t know how to use the language of mathematics to communicate I have to teach them the language and helped them learn to use it.  This can be a challenge, but the rewards for me have always outweighed it.  One of the best tools to help me teach students this language is our Math Wall.  

Math Walls for me are a very important part of my classroom and my mathematics workshops.  They support my teaching and my students learning in the same way as a Word Wall would for the teaching of Reading and Writing.  Here are some of the lessons I have learned about using a Math Wall in the classroom: 

  • Math Walls can be more than just words.  In fact I stopped calling it a Math Word Wall the day I sticky tacked manipulatives up on it.  Math communication can be more than just words.  It can be pictures, diagrams, manipulatives.  I now believe that if there are multiple ways to represent our mathematical thinking our Math Wall should reflect this.
  • Anchor Charts are important.  The power of a co-constructed anchor chart can not be underestimated.  We created anchor charts for everything in math: strategies, problem solving steps, ways to communicate our thinking, ways to represent a number.  If it was important for the students to know and remember we usually had a chart on our Math Wall for them to refer to.
  • Math Vocabulary needs to be accessible.  If using math language is new for our students then they probably don’t have the vocabulary in their schema and it is not mentally accessible.  Therefore, having the math on the wall can become a very important scaffold for them.  If they need a word and can’t find it in their head, they can find it up on the wall. If they are working on writing their thoughts and can’t spell a word, they can find it on the wall.  If they can’t remember how to draw a bar graph, they can find an example on the wall.
  •  Math Walls are an living part of the classroom and by that I mean that they are interactive, ever-changing, and grow or adapt to meet the students needs.  My Math Wall never looked the same from one year to the next because my students were not the same one year to the next.  If students needed support with using open numberlines than my Math Wall had examples of how to use open numberlines.  If they needed support with using mental math strategies then my Math Wall showed examples of mental math strategies. The wall was always changing as students learned concepts and processes and began learning new ones.
  • Math Walls should reflect student ownership.  Students’ math work, thinking, strategies can all be shown on the wall.  I often named my strategies not just as the technical math name but by the name of the student who used it and modelled it for the class.  If Jason demonstrated a strategy such as the commutative property we would label it the commutative property and Jason’s Strategy.  Student’s often would say I am using Jason’s strategy for this question.
  • Opportunities for students to self assess can be built in.  I often found it very helpful to have examples of math journal entries up on my math wall especially at the beginning of the year.  We would go through what I felt were important parts of a math journal entry such as the date, some writing, a picture or drawing, labels…or anything else they needed to communicate their thinking to others.  Then we would put up examples of what this looked like.  Students could look to the wall when writing to see if they had needed to add anything.
  • Don’t be afraid of using math vocabulary and putting it on the wall for students.  I never shy away from math language when I am teaching.  Even my Kindergarten students learned to use such words as congruent and parallel.  Those words were not in their curriculum but I always felt that exposure to proper math terminology never hurt, plus they loved to use the words.  They knew that when we were learning math we were mathematicians and as such needed to use math language.  Plus I was building their schema and background exposure to mathematics. 

We value what we place on our classroom walls.  In today’s classrooms space is often at a premium.  As teachers we can struggle to get it all in…the students, the desks, the tables, the books, the manipulatives… the list goes on and on.  As a teacher I found that same space crunch also applied to my walls.  Between my white/blackboard, shelves, windows…wall space was at a premium too.  I quickly learned that I had to be very selective as to what goes on the walls and I found that the students quickly picked up on this.  They knew  that if I put something on my walls it meant something to me and hopefully to them.  Students know that what goes on our walls is a reflection of what we value most.  If our walls hold pre-made, store-bought bulletin boards, posters, decorations then we value those decorations.  If our wall hold student’s work, art, writing then we value students’ work, art, writing.  If our walls hold an anchor charts we value students thought.  If our walls hold math then we value math.  If we want to create the environment were students embrace mathematics learning, and vocabulary then we need to show them that we as teachers value math.  A little wall space can go a long way.