Is Math Class a Bully?

What’s it like to have a bully in your life?

Being repeatedly shamed and humiliated. Feeling powerless to make it better. Dreading school…

That sounds like math class for too many American kids. Somehow, students learn from their math experiences that they hate math and they can’t do it.  And the kicker is that math is a core class that they will have, day in and day out, their entire school career.  How daunting every day!

I love what Larry Martinek’s said: “Children don’t hate math. What they hate is being confused, intimidated, and embarrassed by math.” And that’s where we come in! As teachers, we have the power to help. We can take the confusion, intimidation, and embarrassment out of our classrooms. We can start right now to rehabilitate the math-class bully.

My friend Bonnie used to promise her 6th and 7th grade students that math would be their favorite class!  I never felt that confident, but why not? Math gives us the chance to think, to ponder, to collaborate, and to figure stuff out.  And figuring it out is one of the best feelings ever- you are brilliant! You are a conqueror! You got it!

In my own experience, my graduate class with Jim Cangelosi made me feel success every single day.  He would ask us questions, but somehow we never got them wrong.  If I was off base, he didn’t move on to another answerer; he’d keep the conversation going with me until I arrived at the right conclusion.  Maybe it was an aha moment for me, maybe not, but either way he’d celebrate, raising both hands above his head in a cheer, as though I’d just personally made his day.  He did that with every student, every question.  That was a feel-good math class.

Number talks are a great way to make everyone feel like they belong. (Jo Boaler explains them so well here.) One of my favorites for my 8th grade class was something simple, like 18 + 27. After giving sufficient time for everyone to find the answer, we’d start a discussion: “How did you find your answer?” Someone might say, “I took 2 from the 27 to make 18 into 20 and then I added it to 25.” So I’d write 18 + 2 + 25 on the board and stop to ask who else did it that way.  Insert celebration here: “That’s the way I do it too!” or “I’ve never thought of it this way- how cool!’ or “Smart way to see that connection to 20…” And then ask, “Who did it a different way?” This can take a while sometimes, but it’s a great discussion, where everyone feels included and valued. And there’s a certain camaraderie when students realize that others see it the way they do.

Here are some ideas to combat the math-class bully:

  • Celebrate! Correct answers are great, but wrong answers show great thinking and great connections along the way. Celebrate them all!
  • Help everyone feel success. The productive struggle is only productive if it gets resolved. For struggling students, scaffold your question carefully, so they will see the answer and be able to answer it, if they listen.  Prove to them that they can do it!
  • Share stories. This came home to me at a Chris Thile concert. He segued between every single song with a story (that may or may not be related!) and it really made the performance feel intimate. So, before you talk about slope, share your steepest hill. Or talk about your family’s Tetris obsession to introduce area and perimeter. Open it up to students’ experiences sometimes (use your discretion) but find ways to make it personal. That’s what draws people together.
  • Do something fun every day even if it’s just using the mini whiteboards or making the worksheet problems into a bingo game.

Whatever you do, make your class a fun, safe place where everyone gets the right answer from time to time and where everyone belongs.

Why I Love Standards-Based Grading

Standards-based grading alters the whole purpose of practice work and removes the shroud of mystery from the dreaded math test. It’s a game changer!

Math is Figureoutable!

The very idea that we already know what we need to solve a tough problem can instill confidence right from the start!

Attitudes (Mistakes are our friends II)

If we want to change how our students feel about mistakes, our classroom has to be a safe place to make them.

Mistakes are our friends!

Making mistakes is the very process of learning! It doesn’t make us stupid, it makes us smart!