Making a Math Class Kids Will Love, Part 2: Goal Setting (and Collaboration)

I finally did it! I unlocked the magic behind SMART goals. And, hey, it only took me, like, a school year and a little more 🙂 We started goal setting as a school-wide focus a couple of years ago, and I just couldn’t figure it out with my 4th graders (see my post about that struggle).  I tried. I read. I read lots. I tried something else.  I collaborated. But nothing seemed to stick.

Enter my brilliant friends, Monica Maynor and Shayla Johnston, who (somewhere between the two of them) came up with an easy to follow progress monitoring sheet perfect for the kids to use and reflect upon themselves. Monica had the idea of having the students record their pre-test scores on a bar graph on the front of the page. Later, we take the exact test as a post-assessment, and the kids mark this test right beside it.  They are then able to see in bold colors or pencil scratches the gains they made during the module.  We teach through the use of Learning Targets and on this sheet there is a spot for each lesson and a short reflection on why they met or did not meet the day’s target. Perfect, right? All that was missing was some goal setting in the little box that remained.

So we discussed our goals. With the momentum of our newly organized goal setting sheet, I knew exactly where to go…

“I want to be a better mathematician.” Me, too! But…how will you do that or decide that you are?

“I want to get better (or faster) at multiplication (division/subtraction/addition).” Me, too! But…how will you do that or decide that you did?

“I want to be the best in the world at math!” Me, too! But…that’s not my only job, nor is it yours! Think that’s doable?

Time for a quick lesson on SMART goals!  We talked about SMART and ran all of the above (and a few more) through the test! They helped me with a few of my own goals such as getting into grad school and running another 5k. They loved it. We turned each of our goals into something…

Specific: We always have a number. 7/12 learning targets, increase post score by 40 points.

Measurable: Kids can see if they’ve done it or not.

Attainable: Goal is to gain, not make a 100…not everyone will. Especially if one started with an 18. Bringing that up 60 points to a 78 shows tremendous learning!

Relevant: Keeping in mind the idea: how is this important to my future success as a 4th grader? In middle and high school?  Why do I need this in the first place?

Timely: “By the end of this module…”

After we wrote, we did a “whip around” quickly sharing our goals out, helping to fix any that are missing an element of SMART, in particular the S, M, and the T.  We are on our third module, about to begin our fourth tomorrow, and we’ll follow the same procedure, checking in to make sure we have a SMART goal in this way. Many sound the same, but we are all working on the same work, so that is to be expected. Besides, save the uniqueness for the celebrations when we end the module!
My kids now understand how and why they met their goals or know they still need help. When I am ready to form small groups for tiered instruction, I use these goal setting sheets and their reflections to guide me. This, sometimes more than a post-test, tells me how well they comprehended the module.

This level of voice in their reflections is starting to come through stronger as we move into the fourth module.  I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year will bring. They’d never know to have this conversation had they not set a goal and had it to reflect upon. It only took me a year, a couple of good friends, and a lot of collaboration to figure out how to do set SMART goals that work for kids, but learning takes time, even for us big kids!

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Making a Math Class Kids Will Love–Part 1: Talk

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!