Helping Elementary Students Cultivate a Strong Math Community

by LaToya Byrd and Jenna Laib

School looks different this year. It’s easy to focus on the changes that will need to be made—the new practices, the new routines, the new technologies—but we must first focus on our central beliefs about teaching and learning, and use those beliefs to determine what’s important. It is essential to build a strong classroom community.

What does it look like?

This community should strive to be one where learners know, use, and enjoy mathematics. How do you envision this math class? And how does that relate to your own mathematical experiences? 


Think back to your time as an elementary school student. How would you have defined “mathematics”? How did you feel about math class? There’s no monolithic experience for teachers. When we ask this at professional development, we have heard teachers say things like:

Math was always about getting the right answer. No collaboration or sharing out our thoughts. Now that I am a classroom teacher, I ensure students get think time and encourage group work. We all have something to learn from each other. I also don’t want my students to think I hold all of the answers. We are a team.

I thought I was a good math student and smart, because that’s what I was told. I knew my math facts and I completed assignments fast. That stopped when I was sitting in an Algebra I class with no reasoning skills. I didn’t know what to do or how to ask for help.

Math was fun! It was a different game every game. We had to work together to solve math mysteries. My teacher kept everyone engaged so we learned without knowing we were learning.

The kind of community we want to create rarely happens by accident. As educators, we can make deliberate choices that support and sustain our math communities. To support this, the authors of IM K–5 Math (currently in beta pilot across the US) embedded plans to build community into the first two weeks of lessons in the curriculum. This work then continues and is regularly reinforced throughout the school year. 

At the Heart of Building a Math Community

Students need to feel ownership and agency within the math community. IM K–5 Math builds in opportunities for students to explore what it means to learn math by doing math, identify the associated actions, and relate the actions of doing math to norms that support that work. 

There are two important considerations when planning the student experiences used to establish norms:

  1. The experiences should be reflective of how learning math will look, sound, and feel all year.
  2. The experiences should be connected to convey the message that learning math is a coherent journey.

Understanding What It Means to Learn Math by Doing Math

The work on community in IM K–5 Math is not a detour; it fits seamlessly into the curriculum. Lessons provide students opportunities to build on their prior understandings and experiences, to share their thinking, and to interact with the thinking of others. They begin with an invitational warm up, like the one below.

From IM K–5 Math, Grade 2, Unit 1

After engaging in authentic and meaningful mathematical ways, students are asked to reflect on what it felt like, looked like, and sounded like. The teacher records this in a T-chart titled “Mathematical Community,” like the one below. For the first 3 days, the focus is on the left side of the chart: Doing Math.

What might this look like this year?

Students mathematize. This might be in a classroom, or at home, or anywhere in between, but first things first: students must do some math! 

Afterwards, students contribute to this chart in person or virtually. In the virtual environment, students might share out during a synchronous session while the teacher records responses on a slide, doc, or even paper or chart paper that the teacher is able to show on the camera. Students could also contribute ideas asynchronously that the teacher then consolidates into one chart.

Here is an example from a IM K–5 Math alpha pilot classroom after the first day.

a T-chart detailing what it means to "do math" for both students and teachers. This image comes from Viri Hawkins in Brookline, MA.
Photo c/o Viri Hawkins, Grade 5

Identifying Actions Associated with Doing Math 

The work continues the next day. After the second lesson of the unit, which again follows the same design structure as all IM K–12 Math curricula, students are asked to review the chart, and to revise or add to it based on their experience during the second lesson. The process continues on day 3, as students are prompted to think about the actions associated with doing math. What specifically did students and teachers do?

For classes that are meeting in person, the T-chart can be hung up in the room for students to review. The teacher should direct students to it before the lesson. After the lesson synthesis, the teacher may again direct students to review the chart, but this time to consider any revisions or additions.
The teacher may make similar moves in a virtual setting. The teacher can show the slide with the chart at the start of the lesson, and lead a brief reflection. The teacher cues the class to revisit the chart to close the lesson, as well.

Affirming and Reaffirming Norms

After the class has spent a few days fleshing out the Doing Math side of the T-chart, it is time to discuss explicit norms that make these actions possible. For example, “it may help us share our ideas as a whole class if we have the norm ‘listen as others share their ideas.’” It helps to spotlight different norms, and to pause the class while working to call attention to them. 

full t-chart detailing what it means for students and teachers to do math, and aligned class norms, c/o Valerie Effland in Springfield, MO
Photo c/o Valerie Effland, Kindergarten

For classes that are held in person, it is helpful to continue to reference the physical recording of the T-Chart. For virtual classes, the teacher can make the decision to show the entire record of the T-chart, or just the one norm in focus that day. 

By week two, the teacher can start the class with a quick refresher of the agreed upon norms, and then end the class by asking students to share what norms they experienced during that class session. Or the teacher may ask students, “which one of the norms did you feel was most important in your work today, and why?” This could be done as a journaling exercise, or, e.g. in a synchronous setting, a class or small group discussion. 

This work is not completed in September. Classes should revisit the T-chart throughout the year, to reflect on the state of collaboration and discourse, and recommit to class norms. 

Impact on Classroom Community 

Co-crafting explicit norms alongside students does more than create shared ownership and a productive atmosphere. This process is designed to promote equitable teaching practices, and impact teacher beliefs. 

Co-crafting norms honors student voices. It centers student ideas, and positions teachers as learners, too. In a recent professional learning session with IM K–5 Math beta pilot teachers, one educator stated that they “[couldn’t] think of a math training that talked about giving a voice to marginalized students the way [IM] did.” Other teachers noted that crafting norms builds community, and that this work echoes how lessons emphasize community, from the invitational warm up to the lesson synthesis.

Co-crafting norms with students also asks a teacher to examine their own beliefs about math learning and teaching. “IM’s curriculum is different,” a teacher shared. “Different in a good way. Being forced to think about my beliefs and positioning can only make me a better teacher. I think we call that humanizing math.”


There have been two IM featured blog posts about co-crafting norms with students: (1) Building a Mathematical Classroom Community; and (2) Co-Creating Classroom Norms with Students. The first post offers a downloadable resource that is similar to what is written into IM K–5 Math. Educators participating in the beta pilot benefit from having this built into their lesson plans, but it would be easy enough to incorporate into any lesson! 

Next Steps

If you use this process, we would love to see your students’ ideas and hear about your experience. You can share your pictures, blog post links, and reflections in the comments section below, or on Twitter using our #LearnWithIM hashtag and tagging @IllustrateMath!

Get more support with IM’s collection of distance learning resources. This includes curriculum adaption packs for the 2020–21 school year that incorporate this work.