Changing the Way Students Approach Math

Last year I piloted a guided inquiry-based textbook, CPM (similar to Open Up), to pull together all the wonderful strategies I have learned from educators at conferences and on Twitter that were also supported by research I was reading and what I saw in my own classroom.  I blogged about the risks and advantages of inquiry learning .  It has been a long journey.

Both of my sons were told they weren’t “math people” by their fifth grade teachers, seven years apart, in two different states.  As a stay-at-home mom and part-time secretary, I couldn’t afford a tutor, so I started spending 20 minutes each week learning and teaching them from workbooks I purchased from Walmart.  It wasn’t until they were looking into engineering schools that I sensed a calling to help other families secure similar privileges and went back to school.  With the vast majority of new jobs requiring logical thinking skills similar to those that can be developed in an algebra class, teaching mathematics to teenagers is not a job for me.  I’m on a mission.

I was totally confused when I first started teaching in Pacific, Missouri.  My lower level students seemed delighted, saying math made sense to them for the first time in their lives.  But my calculus students often seemed frustrated:

Just show the steps.  Just give us one way that works every time.  The problem on the review guide didn’t look like this one.  

From my observations as a secretary, employed or temping in almost 30 different contexts, teaching memorized steps didn’t seem to align with the thinking I saw happening in real businesses.  While my colleagues shared my concerns about students’ inability to solve problems other than those exactly the same, repeated over and over, they sympathized with students’ disdain for explanations:  “Just show them the steps.”  I wanted to do the right thing, so I contacted Dr. Wesley Bird at the Missouri Department of Education who encouraged me to read a book written by a Chinese-American teacher who explained the importance of teaching for concept:  not only giving students explanations but also helping them to make sense of the explanations, connecting topics together.  Shortly after that, national standards were released that began to push the entire country in that direction.  With all the teacher forums and conferences I am involved with, it is now rare for me to find a teacher who is still advocating memorized steps without understanding; but changes in education happen very slowly, and many are still hesitant to spend classroom time teaching students to persevere in rich, realistic problem solving.  This is especially true in Algebra 2 classes which are the classes most likely to cause a student to drop out of school.  I explain to parents why traditional classroom instruction is not translating into success at college. Parents have a need and a right to know what is happening.

During the social media wars over the Common Core, I was encouraged to get onto Twitter to explain how my experiences fit into the battle.  It was there that I connected with educators all over the world who were determined to do whatever it takes to help students make sense out of math, using engaging strategies like

  • Notice and Wonder
  • Estimation 180
  • 3-Acts
  • Number Talks
  • Patterns
  • Desmos
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Some of those creative teachers have posted their blogs in the Virtual Conference of Mathematical Flavors here.

Much of what I saw was for younger students, so I began to write some of my own activities to align to high school standards here, here, and here.  It’s always a challenge at first to get students motivated to reach for understanding; but once they get into it, all the brain research plays out.  My students see math as practical, interesting, and thought-provoking.  We joke about ending the hour with little “headaches” from all the focused analysis and learning.  I have also integrated references to parallel thought processes in the world of STEM, so students see and embrace the long-term benefits of their efforts to learn.

I am thankful I no longer have to spend so much time figuring how how best to deliver content to my students, although I do supplement based on their unique needs.  I am able to provide better feedback and it is more personalized.  Now I can spend more time getting to know them, partnering with parents, and motivating their best learning.


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