Until I was 27 I hated math. Yes, I know I am a math teacher and a self-proclaimed “mathemagician”, but it’s totally true. When I ask on the first day of school, “Who really loves math?”, I see 3-4 kids raise their hands (enthusiastically). In the others I see fear, sadness, disappointment, a challenge, and I see myself. An awesome article written by one of my favorite mathematicians attests to the fact that failing at math is different feeling like you are bad at something else. I make a promise on the first day of school. “By the time that you leave, you will LOVE math! A bold promise, and I need help. That’s where YOU come in!” They are baffled.
How do we change this fear of failure in the math class? My first step is to let down the walls and share. Nothing helps more with fear than facing it, right? Check out this TED talk by my favorite astronaut (now) on this planet.
This sharing brings a whole new set of challenges. How do you say, “Whew, this answer is WRONG!” in a way that will empower your friend? How do you let them know that they totally read the question incorrectly and spent 20 minutes barking up the wrong tree? What do you do when someone tells you that your hard work, as we always say, “that you put your heart into”, is just not cutting it? What do you do when your partner does nothing? (every group I was ever in during my school days…) How do you address it without being bossy?
Each year within the first three days, I have the kids write down all of the things they hate hearing from a partner. When we read them aloud most kids are shocked that anyone would say those things. But when I ask, all nod, they’ve been the one saying them. I ask, “Why do we talk this way? Is it because we are mean? I don’t think so…”
“I want my partner to get the answer right, too.”
“Sometimes their work makes me think of other work, and I realize that we both have the wrong answer!”
“I want to help, but sometimes I am the one who has the wrong answer. What do I even say?”
“I know some of the right things to say, but it’s not enough.”
We generate questions to ask our partners instead of tell them. They start with “I” instead of “you” and use the word “help” a LOT. “I am confused on this part, can you show me what you did?” We talk about how to be the best model for our peers, what it looks like and doesn’t look like. We talk about specific, not general questions. “This is confusing” is replaced with “I don’t understand ____, can you help?” We talk about how when you try to use strategies, you ALWAYS bring something to the discussion. I use a problem solved last year (wrong answer) and the kids discuss what he would have brought for them to talk about. We discuss strategies, not answers, and how focusing on the strategies focuses on the thinking rather than the answer. We want to question and make our partners think thus building our learning community in strength and knowledge. We are in the boat together, I tell them. What you say matters.
And of course, we discuss part of Golden Rule…how would I want this said to me? If you can’t think of the “right” question or way to say it, just go with your gut. I listen for what they actually say and ask them to repeat aloud what their partner said that “helps them grow as a mathematician” (or scientist!) I collect the language on an anchor chart so that they can reference it, and they write what they like or use in their journals. It’s no miracle, just talking and celebrating. Well, two things I do best 🙂
Not everything is perfect. I had to talk to a student about making fun of another student’s work, and I simply asked him “Does this support our learning environment?” and he immediately knew. Of course they need reminders, they are humans. But this partnership is something amazing which holds the kids accountable in different ways, releasing me from having to manage group behavior and tattling all year. WE establish what WE want to happen, and only WE can get there.
No one is going to love math, or school for that matter, simply because their teacher is nice to them. From day one, the words we use and the way we treat each other establish the culture of mistake making, challenging, and thinking deeply, all in a safe environment. This is a team effort. My kids will love math this year. I know this is true, but it doesn’t happen because of me. It happens because of the way that they pull each other along and spur each other to greatness. That conversation happens every second in a math (and science!) class that kids love!