Monday, March 13, 2017

Math-itudes and Teaching Differently

"Are you here because we aren't smart? Because we need extra help?"

This paraphrased question was what greeted me when I went up to a Grade 6-7 class to begin a new partnering adventure. I was really surprised by this reaction and the classroom teacher and I spent a few minutes talking with the group about the purpose of my visit before we began. As we explained to the group, their teacher had booked this time slot for partner time, which is often a time for the classroom teacher and teacher-librarian to work together somehow. This is usually a math period, and their teacher (a conscientious, talented, and all-around good guy) thought that it might be a great opportunity to give his Grade 7s some more attention. His Grade 6-7 class is a bit "lopsided"; there are only 5 Grade 7s and their teacher wanted to ensure that they received undivided attention for a portion of their next unit. He asked if I could take the Grade 7s and enrich their unit on fractions with some problem solving tasks. I wasn't present because they were weak students or unintelligent. Yet, when I showed up during math time, this is what they assumed.

We decided to work in the library. Instead of sitting at tables, we sat on the couches in the "cozy corner" of the library and started off with a community circle conversation about math in general. Most of the group shared some apprehensions about the subject. I told them that I was somewhat atypical of a math instructor - my math classes don't look like a traditional math class.

This was true twelve years ago, when I first came to my school and the principal included Grade 7 math as part of my teaching assignment timetable. Back then, it didn't work out so well for the students I had. Why? It was because I was not confident about teaching intermediate level math and so I agreed to use all the tests written by the other educator teaching Grade 7 math as the primary means of evaluation. In my math class back then, we did a lot of talking and group work. My scrapbook from 2004-2005 shows scenes from my math class of preteens sprawled on the floor sketching or crowded around the blackboard together. The tests they received were all paper-and-pencil, individually assigned, and marked according to specific criteria that my group had neither discussed nor constructed. The students I taught did not fare as well on these tests as the students the other teacher taught. This was before three-part lessons and math congress techniques were widely known or used. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have advocated for using other instruments to inform my understanding of their learning. I also would not have let my own discomfort with the subject material dictate the direction the class took.

Back to 2017 ... after our community circle chat about math in general, the students discussed what they knew about fractions. I wasn't completely responsible for their entire unit, because I only was scheduled for one double block and they have math daily, so I had the freedom of designing tasks so they could apply what they knew about fractions in authentic situations. I "warned" them that we might do unusual things, and one of the things we did was live-tweet our learning that day. The students gave their permission for their work to appear on Twitter, and one even suggested we tag our related tweets with the hashtag #fractions. I like that idea! I think I may retweet them but call it #fractionaction. Here are the tweets we shared.

What's with the monkey?  Well, I find that it can be useful to have a "third party" that can be the focus of any negative attention related to the subject. This is the case with Smedley the elephant (read the link to a post in 2013 about this toy). I also find that bringing in something completely unexpected gets our brains zipping a bit more. I had just bought this monkey puppet with my Scholastic Book Fair proceeds and I was dying to use him for something. Did the Grade 7s find it childish? If they did, they didn't tell me. They were too busy splitting their granola bars. This used a lot of math concepts from other strands. The granola bar was 10 cm long, so students used measurement as well as number sense and numeration to calculate where they should chop it. One used 1/2s, one used 1/3s, one used 1/4s, one used 1/5s and the final student used 1/8s. The fantastic thing was that as we were talking, my adult library volunteer mentioned that she was baking just that past week and had to figure out how to measure 1/8 tsp when she didn't own a 1/8 tsp measuring spoon. This was "real math" and led us to consider baking next week as our math activity.

What I'm doing isn't revolutionary or particularly innovative. What makes this possible is having a smaller number - challenging in junior / intermediate classes where enrollment is closer to 30 students per class than it is 20 - and less pressure to "cover" everything. It's also a overt effort to avoid math phobia and keep a positive attitude about learning math.

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