About November of the last school year I knew that I was not connecting with my students mathematically. Carefully constructed lesson plans with objectives, guided practice and independent practice brought the same results and they weren’t acceptable. Somehow the message wasn’t being received. As a class we had a severe need to develop fluency and our number sense was lacking. It would be easy for me to point to my students and accuse them of laziness or blame one of my colleagues for “not laying the foundation” but the truth is I needed a new approach. Somehow I knew that I needed a better way to help my students understand. I was in a serious state of disequilibrium. Thus began my journey to improve my ability to teach mathematics.
That brings me to a second story about my son. To this day he claims to be “no good at math”. I can trace this back to a game his third grade teacher innocently played called “Around the World”. In this game students stand and are challenged to answer a math fact from flash cards. My son never won the game, always beaten by one of two friends who were much faster calculators or better at memorization. I can recall clearly the days they played the game. He was always sad and down on himself. The point being, my son was convinced by that innocent enough game that he was not a math person. Sad fact.
I had attended Singapore Math training the previous summer but really had not taken the “dive”. I could see where number bonds and bar modeling made sense but I hadn’t implemented it. It was time. While seeking new ways to address fluency I came across Sherry Parrish’s book on number talks. I watched her YouTube videos and how she constructed her problem sets. It made perfect sense. Then I attended the NCTM Conference in San Francisco and was re-introduced to Dan Meyer (I had seen him at CUE the year before) and was able to hear Jo Boaler, Graham Fletcher, Robert Kaplinsky and Sherry Parrish speak. It was what I needed to change my approach to mathematics teaching.
I recently asked my son if he was happy with his choice of majors. He responded that he was, but really would have preferred one of the sciences but was sure he couldn’t handle the math. Here is a bright kid who’s path was permanently changed because of math facts. It was like a punch in the gut. How did I not see it? How did I not change it? He did not possess a “growth mindset”, his was definitely a “fixed mindset”. We worked and worked at math but he never enjoyed it and I wasn’t equipped as I am today with the tools and strategies to make it more interesting and understandable. I didn’t understand the damage that timed tests or innocent math games could do to a young mathematician. I didn’t know how to help him and question him and encourage him to have that “growth mindset” with regards to math. He never ventured to take advanced classes in high school and still hates math.
Now my son is very happy and very successful so it is not a tragic story, just one that drives me daily to promote the use of alternative tools to timed tests and math facts games that value speed over understanding and deep mathematical thinking. I encourage talking to students to try to understand their thinking and use what I learn to change and modify my teaching. I make them explain what they did and why. Sometimes I challenge a correct response to develop a sense of belief in themselves. I always ask if anyone had a different way to find an answer. I also try to be “less helpful” not rushing to help students but letting them struggle with a problem. I remain a crusader for talking in the classroom and try to create a sense of wonder and questioning about all learning.