I Might Need Help Getting Started

I have been excited and anxious about this September. It is my first year teaching grade 5. I am not sharing a room with another teacher this year, and I now teach all subjects like all elementary generalists are supposed to do. I spend less time teaching math, or rather I try to spend less time teaching math. Recommended time allocation is 25% for Language Arts and 15% for math. Can I add math journaling to 25%?

I spent a large part of my summer getting my head around grade 5 topics and outcomes and trying to plan. My google drive notes progressed from “Grade 5 Math Miscellaneous” to “Math Weekly”. For the first few weeks I tried to choose a range of activities that would allow me to set up norms and routines as well as get a sense of how my students solve problems and work with numbers.

Observations: Are You Good At Math?

On our first week, I asked my students to share with me if they think they are good at math, explain how they know, and tell me if other people know about their math abilities. Grade 3 responses last year revolved around calculations, but the majority of the students had good confidence about their math skills. Apparently, something changes by the time they reach grade 5.

good at math

good at math1

good at math3

good at math2

It sounds like some students are trying to give up already. Something to be mindful of.

Successes: Visual Patterns

I love starting a year with Visual Patterns: A perfect example of low floor/high ceiling routine. I get inspiration from visualpatterns.org and eventually move on using the patterns that students have created as prompts.

We started with these patterns.

Students created their own and used Desmos to graph them. I plan to continue working with patterns throughout the year. Building more patterns. Writing expressions. Building patterns for expressions. Checking their predictions with graphs.


Challenges: Subtraction

Grade 5 curriculum in Alberta doesn’t mention addition or subtraction of whole numbers. I guess the review is assumed though I wish it was explicitly mentioned. I wasn’t about to dive into decimals operations and multi-digit division and multiplication without ensuring addition and subtraction skills are ready. We started our number talks with subtraction strategies, but I also gave my students some questions to answer that would require them to use subtraction: a mix of word problems and pure arithmetic questions, spread around a few days. Here are some examples. What do you notice and wonder?



I see a pretty vast range of different understandings of numbers, place value and operations.

  • Understanding of one-digit operations however without understanding of place value
  • Confusion with the algorithm
  • Understanding of place value however uncertainty how to apply this understanding to subtraction
  • Understanding the relationships between addition and subtraction
  • Flexibility with different subtraction strategies and confident understanding of place value

I tried to choose the prompts that would call for particular strategies like adding up or making friendly numbers. About 90% of my students chose to use the standard algorithm for all the prompts, and  50% were getting lost in it. Here are some strategies that students generated. Where do I begin?

subtraction poster

Closing Thoughts

It seems like the map of understandings is expanding the older the students get, and I find students in very different places. I wonder how grade 7-12 teachers manage to navigate it. How does differentiation look like in different classrooms? Yes, all my students were able to access visual patterns lessons at their level, but they all need to master subtractions skills as well. How do I support my students in getting access to the skills and problems that are currently very challenging for them and the challenges are different for everyone?


I Noticed a Pattern in My Pattern


“What is a pattern?” – “It is when something is repeating like ABAB.” I found at the beginning of grade 3 that my students could build repeating patterns. We’ve been working throughout the year on identifying rules in increasing and decreasing numerical and visual patterns, and I wanted to find a way for all this scattered practice to come together.

The credit for the idea goes, yet again, to Simon Gregg  who shared how he used Desmos with his students to graph the visual patterns they created. He shared his blog post with the details of the lesson and students’ work. I wanted to adapt it for my classroom and I hoped that my students would notice the connections between the model, the symbolic numerical representation and the diagram/graph.

Questions and Thoughts: Before

I was anxious about the logistics of the lesson. Thank you, Sarah, for moral support!



Will everyone be able to build an increasing pattern?

Will all students identify which step is which when translating the pattern into the table?

If we work in math journals, will someone spend an hour creating a table to fill out?

Will the students be able to handle the technology part independently?

Preparing for the Lesson: Getting Ready to Make a Pattern

I used one of the three-act math prompts from Graham Fletcher’s website to get students thinking about the growing patterns. After watching the video, I asked my students to build steps 4 and 5 of the pattern, label the steps and the number of tiles in each step and write down the pattern rule. Then students had to figure out how many tiles would be in step 10 without building or drawing all intermediate steps. This part has gone smoothly enough to proceed to the next lesson.

Preparing for the Lesson: Getting Ready to Make a Table and a Graph

Many of my students used the table to organize the numerical information about the pattern to find the number of tiles for step 10. We created and extended the table together with the class. I decided to use teacher.desmos.com to utilize the dashboard feature that would allow me to keep track of the students work and to bring it on the interactive whiteboard for future discussions. Here is the activity screen I used to for my lesson. We graphed the pattern together and discussed the behaviour of the graph.

The Creation

The lesson went much smoother than it did in my nightmares. I made a table template to simplify the logistics. Most of the students were successful in creating an increasing pattern that follows a specific rule. Some students created patterns that were increasing, but they needed support to identify that their rule was not consistent.

There was often a “break” in the rule between step 1 and the rest of the pattern.
Some patterns had obvious visual rules but were tricky to represent in a table.

While most of the students worked with addition, some students tried to triple or double the number of cubes they use in the pattern.

Pattern 1: A Pyramid

Pattern 2: A Fire


Pattern 3: Plus Four

Pattern 4: “It’s a bit up and down but still increasing.”


Students had some great notices and wonders.






The really exciting things started happening when students crowded around the interactive whiteboard and started analyzing their own and each others’ graphs. Someone noticed that if there is an unusual change in behaviour in a graph, there might be a mistake somewhere in the calculations. One student said, “If the number of cubes is the same on every step, I think the graph will be just the straight line, not tilted.” Someone else asked, “How can you make a circle if there will be more than one Y for one X?”

I had a moment of insight.

Making Predictions

During my lunch break I threw together my template for the afternoon reflection which included three questions and three spaces for the sketches.

-Without numbers, sketch how the graph of your increasing pattern looked like.

-Sketch how you think a graph of a decreasing pattern might look like.

-Sketch how you think a graph of a repeating pattern might look like.

I asked students to try and explain their intuition.


There were a few interesting ideas considering the behaviour of the graph of a decreasing pattern.


Many students tried to look at the graph differently rather than switching the direction of the slope. As if they re-located their point of view rather than changing the orientation of the graph to represent the decrease. I wonder why and I currently have no explanation.


This reminded me of a graph of an absolute value function, and it seems to me that the student’s logic was also describing something similar.

As expected, repeating patterns had the largest variety of predictions. Most of the students went with the equally spaced bumps. A few sketched a graph of a constant.


There was an attempt to express a repeating pattern as a periodic event.


And I need to ask some questions about this graph: How far do you think these lines can go up and down?


Questions and Thoughts: After

My students need more Desmos in their lives. The interface appeared to be 8 year old friendly. I did not need to explain anything about the coordinate grid. I think, if we try graphing decreasing patterns, there will be more clarity about the structure. I loved the teacher dashboard with all the functionality of tracking my students’ work and the ability to pause the lesson and to control the slides. I would love to have the function to print students’ work from the dashboard implemented because printing 50 clipped screenshots was somewhat time consuming.

I wonder if showing all three steps of the process before engaging with it pushed many of my students to work numerically rather than visually. Many of the students were just building the “rods” with the cubes instead of going for more creative shapes. Would the outcome have been different if I asked them to build the patterns first, took the pictures, and then introduced the next two steps? If anyone tries, please let me know how it goes.

I also wonder what my next step(s) should be. I am considering giving kids their graphs and pictures of their patterns and finishing their notices and wonders first. Some of the students wanted to test their predictions for decreasing and repeating patterns. Some started experimenting with creating pictures with their lines. I am also thinking about reversing the process; giving my students a graph and asking to create a table and to build a pattern. We will start with wonders and then I will make my decision.