Sunday, March 27, 2016

Math Mojo: Losing It, Finding It, Seeing Students Lose it and How to Help Them Get It Back!

I can remember the exact moment my attitude about math changed. It was 7th grade and my teacher, Mrs. Brown, gave a test on the first day of school. My mind was still in summer camp mode, dreaming of Lake Potanipo and my bunk of friends. It certainly was not on the paper sprawled in front of me. Not taking the test too seriously, I answered about half of it in the time allotted. Mrs. Brown saw what I did, and she made an assumption. She figured that I was not a good math student. I did not answer everything or do well on what I did. She never asked me to retake the test or any questions about my math thinking. She never knew I earned a medal in the 3rd grade Continental Math League for being one of the top students in the state for math skills. She made a decision to move me from math 2 to now what I know as an educator to be remedial math. That one decision affected my whole math career as a student. I was always behind my classmates, bored out of my mind. When I got to high school I had to advocate taking honors classes with other grades when none were available to me. I taught myself out of the book to learn more than what I needed to know. I always regretted the math decision my teacher made, and in the years in between becoming an educator and that fateful day in seventh grade I lost my passion for all things numbers.

Flash forward to the year 2016 where I love math and figuring things out with my students. I enjoy presenting them with math challenges and watching them learn to understand the process behind the concepts. I love how I can assess students against standards and not a grade made up of homework, quizzes, and test scores. I never wanted them to experience what I did. I wanted my students to gain an appreciation of mathematics concepts, marvel at the wonder of how math is everywhere, and apply concepts to new ideas like coding.  As I watch my own students grow up and go through their math world I begin to see their excitement for math turn into frustration over their grades. I understand the need for test grades given at the middle and high school level, but I feel what is really being assessed on most of these tests is an increased anxiety level, lack of following directions, and careless errors made because the student has 45 minutes to take a 20-40 question test with multiple steps and parts. I see students’ confidence shattered over things out of their control. Students who get 68% on tests and Ds and Cs on their report card begin to feel that they do not understand things, that they are struggling, or they will never learn the material. Learning theory 101 talks about mental readiness, but that door is being slammed shut.  I believe any educator can tell what their students know and understand in 5-10 problems, by an exit card, or just talking to them. We do assess students a lot, and I am beginning to wonder what for. What is this data used for? What do we do with it that effectively changes our teaching? Who does this really benefit?

I challenge educators to think about assessments and what is best for students. Try a collaborative project, inquiry based learning, or ask students to create something that applies their thinking on the topic. You might be surprised at what you get. I wish my seventh grade math teacher asked me that. I probably would have been moved to the advanced class instead! My math attitude would have improved, and I would have seen myself as a girl who can understand math and develop a love for numbers and how they work. I am glad I got my math mojo back!

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