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Episode 43: Making Math Come to Life! An Interview with TJ Jemison

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

Desiree Harrison 0:00

I’m excited to have one of the authors of the

series, Math By The Book, join us for this episode. The Math by the Book series has a bundle for kindergarten through 5th grade and uses children’s literature as a vehicle for engagement, authenticity, and understanding the value of including context in our work with children to help them make connections about the world. Teachers are always looking to outside resources to build up their collection of activities and relevant tasks. Today’s episode also gives us some background and insight about what makes up a quality resource episode and reminds us that quality is often more valuable than quantity.

Desiree Harrison 0:45

So, welcome to the Kids Math Talk Podcast!

TJ Jemison 0:52

Hi, I'm TJ. I'm a math consultant from Burlington, Vermont. And I'm really excited to be here. I have a background a long time ago as a special educator. I was also a Math Recovery Math Interventionist for years. I've done a lot of curriculum work in my district and then became a math coach. And for the last decade I've been traveling around our country and internationally, working with teachers from preK to 6th grade.

Desiree Harrison 1:27

Alright, yes. I'm excited to talk with you today. So, just in my seeing your posts and learning more about you through social media, I know that you're connected to lots of resources, so that's kind of around our theme for today's episode. And I know that teachers have so many decisions to make every minute of every day. And it seems especially in the past ten years or so, many teachers have added onto this plate, and that of picking resources - they've added that to this ever-growing list. And that seems to have resulted in what some call decision fatigue.

So, can you tell us, with your experiences, and your background in math education, can you just talk to us about how you assist teachers in building a collection of quality resources that doesn't result in this burnout.

Headshot of TJ Jemison smiling
TJ Jemison @teedjvt

TJ Jemison 2:25

Sure. Gosh, my brain is going in so many directions as you ask that. The first thing I just want to talk about quickly was a great presentation I saw, I think was at NCTM in San Diego from Dr. Hilary Kreisberg. And she talked about this research study that was done around jams. So we go to this really nice supermarket. And they have little tables of jams out and they have six different jams and then have a table with 2 jams. And in a nutshell, what they found, which they kind of extrapolate out other things that will make sense when I finish telling the story, is that the table that had six jams, didn't have as many people tasting the jams. The one that had more jams had more people going to it. But the one with six jams actually had more people purchase those jams.

So there is this kind of breaking point once you get so many options for something. You know, it's nice to have more than one option, or just two options. But, it's not endless right. You can't just have open, kind of, no limits to something.

So, absolutely, what you're saying is a real thing. So, I have supported teachers over the last decade or so, starting in my own school district, specifically around the Bridges program. So I've done a lot of work with teachers of how to use that program in a way. And one of the things I find, regardless of if it's Bridges, or Engage New York, or Eureka, or whatever it may be, is that we have to think about - and I always say this whenever I'm with teachers -

You are professionals and you have lots of experience and credentials and degrees. And you have to make these decisions. And so there's always these words about fidelity and how to use a program or use materials with fidelity and I think that's such a dangerous word. Not because it's not a good word, but I think because people misinterpret what it actually means.

And so, again, all of that kind of gets to this question you're asking about having all of these resources and what to do. And how to help teachers. So, I think there has to be a combination when folks like myself are working with teachers in kind of the trenches, of like -

you've got to understand mathematics for teaching and you have to be able to identify what is a quality resource, first of all. Because I know a lot of teachers that go on Teachers Pay Teachers and, not to bad mouth them, but I don't believe there's the best resources there - it wouldn't be my first go-to.

And, so, one of the little projects I did over the last year, kind of, when I was grounded at home in Vermont during the pandemic, was - I reached out to folks at ALL Learners, who I've done some work with and said -

Hey! I'd love to really put together a collection of, kind of, curated resources, specifically for number sense routines - they call it a launch.

And so they - I didn't have any - I don't know how to create a webpage. So they lent me their webmaster. So I had some support. I have content knowledge, so I kind of just fed that to her and kind of created this [ALL Learners Network] page and it's still a work in progress but it's a great place to kind of go and highlight some of those amazing resources - like Which One Doesn't Belong? or Number Talk Images.

You know, these things that people have put out there. And I have used myself and just found so much, so much great engagement with students. So not only are students excited and engaged, but they're also- they're getting really important math concepts. So that was part of that, just curating that. But then the other piece that's started to just that folks have started sending me images, like-

"Hey! This is something that I did with my kids."

Or, a woman got chocolate-covered cherries from her husband before Valentine's day or something. And she yelled at him before he gave them - "I have to get a picture of's an array. I have to send it to TJ!"

So, I think just collecting these kind of great images - and, you know, social media's just such a great place to do that and to learn about these things.

I follow people like Howie Hua on there and he posts some great stuff. I've reached out to him and have said, "Hey! Do you mind if I put some of your images on our site?"

So I think, in a nutshell, to really answer your questions, it's helping teachers in the field kind of identify what is it that kind of creates a quality task?

Because a quality task doesn't have just one answer, or it doesn't just have one way to get that answer. And so it provides that opportunity for lots of different entry points from a really concrete level or they might need that kind of visual in the task to extend in the other direction, for students who might really need that extension.

So, just thinking about:

What are the characteristics of a really good task? Whether it be for the launch or a number sense routine, or for part of your main lesson to kind of populate that.

TJ Jemison 7:57

So, thank you for talking definitions - with that word fidelity and how we might think we know what somebody else means, but unless we really lay it out there, we're not necessarily talking the same language.

Desiree Harrison 8:14

And, just another note about Teacher pay Teacher - because I completely agree - but if you had asked me, I don't know, maybe like six years ago - I might have had a different answer just because of things that I've learned along the way and just realizing how saturated that marketplace has become and used to be. And thinking about - of course there are some things that you can download and, you know, have a fantastic experience with your students. But just that piece you were talking about - intentionally being curated and then vetted is not something that is an intentional practice of a lot of these open marketplaces. And if there's one message that I hope that listeners today get from this piece right here is just that everything has to be intentional and we have to look beyond if it's cute or if we think it's going to be "fun", and get back to that definition of quality that you were just talking about.

TJ Jemison 9:21

Right. I think the other piece that goes along with what you're saying that I didn't mention is also that idea of- I can take a so-so task or a so-so image and depending on what I do in my teacher moves, right, so it's not coming from the task itself.

It's not coming from a program that way they tell you to teach this. But if I know, for instance, you know, shout out to Annie Fetter - just do a notice and wonder! So, I put up some problem, whether it's a word problem and I don't show the question yet, or it's an image - and I just say, what do you notice? What do you wonder?

Provide some air space for that. Let students turn and talk. You know, and just kind of creating this environment where students have to think and use their head versus being spoon-fed these problems that have this nice smooth path that we then applaud them for jumping over crack in the pavement. So I think that's the other piece, and that kind of goes back to what I said about honoring teachers.

Honoring teachers as experts, as their expertise, their experiences and their degrees that they have and let them make decisions. But give them the tools to make those decisions and then the quality of the task isn't quite as important when you have a teacher that, you know, intentionally knows what to do about something that might be, you know, missing the rigor of another task.

Desiree Harrison 11:25

Yeah, definitely thinking about the implementation and what you were saying earlier about just having the content knowledge and the background knowledge.

So, yeah, okay, you've helped us start to define what we might consider as a quality resource when we're out there searching, if we choose to do that searching.

So, once we have a collection of quality resources, how can teams of teachers, and maybe even coaches who are working with teachers, use some of these, and use these rich math talks, or the notice and wonder or any of these launches that you have curated on your website, as tools for reflection about their own teaching practice?

TJ Jemison 12:08

Yeah. So, one thing I want to mention to start off with, that I'm so happy you brought up - that kind of defining terms and again this word that I personally think is dangerous when it's used in education is fidelity.

And to me, we shouldn't think about or talk about fidelity unless we're talking about or including the students who are sitting in front of us. Right.

So, I don't think it's teaching with fidelity to use a program or use a task in the way it's intended if it doesn't match up or meet the needs of those students that are sitting in front of. you, right.

So, if you're choosing to just follow a script because, "Oh! That's what the program said. That's what the program said I was supposed to do today."

Then you're really not teaching with fidelity because you're ignoring those little kiddos sitting right in front of you.

So, again that's one thing. I think you have to have some knowledge of formative assessments, some data, you know, some assessment data, observational data, anecdotal data, to be able to say, you know -

"Here's what I know about the kiddos that are sitting in front of me. And I know what I'm responsible for in 3rd grade. I'm responsible for teaching 3rd grade mathematical content. But, I can't ignore the fact that maybe there are some instructional gaps in their background and some 1st and 2nd grade standards. So, I've got to address those somehow."

And so, as a team I can think about, "Where do I do that?", right.

I can't just put 3rd grade content on hold and say, "well, I'll just teach 1st and 2nd grade skills that maybe they didn't get" because maybe there was a breakdown in instruction or maybe it had to do with Coronavirus, or whatever.

So, you have to find ways to do both of those things. You have to, because if I put my 3rd grade content on hold, then I'm just going to create this snowball that keeps going. And then in 4th grade they're not going to have those things in 3rd grade.

So, I think that's one thing for teams to work together to really think about.

"This is where our students are at. These are the resources I have in front of me..."

whether it's a packaged program that you district has purchased, or whether you're pulling something from, you know, the website that I've created.

So, I think that's a really important piece. 14:23

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