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!

Hoping in 2015

The year begins today…PD in action with lots of happy faces, hugs, and so much thinking that I think I need another summer break 🙂 Then our beautiful principal gives the question and 10 minutes to reflect: what hopes we have for our kids in 2015-2016?  We have all been thinking all summer about plans and analyzing data, but our hopes we have for them? Wow, that is one of my favorite words like EVER. That’s something I can really get excited about…

So what do I hope?

I hope they are as ready as I am.

I hope they are brave when I am not.

I hope they push me to learn more.

I hope they listen to each other.

I hope they feel loved.

I hope they catch my enthusiasm for learning.

I hope they have fun.

I hope they laugh a lot.

I hope they are kind.

I hope they look back at this year and remember that I made them feel like a million bucks.

Honestly, I can’t say much more than this…my hopes for myself are summed up above.  If I can do all of this for a student, I am doing all I need to do as an educator!

Brave Teachers, Brave Kids

As part of our Open House presentation, my 4th graders and I had to talk about our SMART goals.  Knowing how I have failed miserably with the T in SMART (timely, including an end date) and maybe even the S and the M (specific and measurable), I planned on this going something like this:

Me: Let’s talk about the goals we have set this year!

Kids: [flipping way back in their journals to the beginning of the year]……(crickets)……ummmmm….

But THIS is how it went instead:

Me: Let’s talk about the goals we have set this year! (pause)

Kid 1: I really wanted to speak out more in class….(1st one to speak!)

Kid 2: I wanted to be brave enough to try the spelling bee. (Made it to the 3rd round!)

Kid 3: I have been working hard to start math problems every time, not wait for the answer. (A leader in math who now helps others when they are stuck!)

Kid 4:  At the beginning of the year, I was scared to speak Spanish, I had a goal to practice more.  (HUGE improvement with second language!)

And it went on and on for at least 10 minutes, my students sharing their goals, amazing me with their thoughts.  And as I listened, I realized I knew what they had been working on because I saw the evidence and the results even though we had never even discussed them!  It was magical!  How did they learn all of this?  Why did they care to make goals and try for something bigger?  I sure hadn’t been their teacher on this part…

Then I realized a trend, most of the goals had to do with taking risks.   My quiet girls wanted to speak up.  The shyest girl in the class, she was the spelling bee representative from our class.  My mathematicians, discouraged from state testing (ugh…) and the new challenges of 4th grade wanted to practice, to learn, to GO FOR IT!  Where did this even come from?  I had an odd theory…maybe from my summer promise to make this “My Year of Living Dangerously”.

I shared this idea with my kids at the beginning of the year, and anytime that I took a risk, I told them.  These exchanges happened in side conversations, in my writing examples, in the technology that we were beginning to use.   Some of my risks were small, like staying up late on a school night (gasp!).   Some of my risks have been big, like transitioning to online homework, and finally posting this blog.   I took my kids along as we tried Google Sites and recently with Genius Hour (just a month before state testing!  Yipes!).  Why?  Well…why not?

That “Why not?” attitude is clear in the goals they set and have achieved.  Why not be the first to speak?  Why not try something that is REALLY hard?  Why not try something big for my Genius Hour project?  Why not!?!

I’ve always believed that I can’t ask the kids to do something I am not going to do, can’t, or won’t do.   Here I saw what happened when that took place on a whole different level within the walls of my classroom.   The climate has always depended on my actions with my kids, but seeing them own their bold, risk-taking goals was way more that I ever thought possible.  And as my kids continue to take these risks, I take them too, inspired by their curiosity, kindness, creativity, and bravery.

So…let’s risk looking silly in front of our peers for the sake of our learning and the betterment of our kids!  Let’s not let the fear of mistakes keep us from trying something new or scary!  Let’s be bold learners and adventurous teachers!  Why not?  You never know who might be following you!

(P.S. If you are good at helping 4th and 5th graders set SMART goals, just let me know!  I am not afraid to ask for help!)