By Daniel Pooler, Middle Level Representative
Being a middle school teacher, every year and, sometimes, every day is a new adventure. You never know who will show up at your door. Will they be eager to learn, or will they come in saying that they are “not good at math” because they are “not a math person”? Will something occur outside of school or in another class that will shut them down to learning when you need them to be ready to learn? How does one possibly prepare for all the obstacles and barriers that come up throughout the year to make sure all students in your classes are working to their potential every day? In my experience as a middle school educator, the best solution I have found is to build strong relationships with your students, to provide a safe classroom environment for students to make mistakes, to provide engaging, real-world, problem-solving activities that force student struggle, and to always practice what you expect from your students.
Over the course of the past three years, my middle school has begun to focus on creating a transition period into each middle school grade that helps students get adjusted to new teams, new teachers, and new expectations. Part of this change has included each grade using the Week of Inspirational Mathematics provided on www.youcubed.org by Jo Boaler. Math teachers in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes start the year by going through the lessons with their students. Each grade uses a different week to ensure no redundancy in materials for students. The material takes students through engaging problem-solving activities that also allow the teacher to build classroom norms that support a safe environment. I have found in the past three years that students are very engaged in the activities and the videos, which make it very easy to initiate classroom discussions around norms.
For me, the heart of my class discussions has centered around a few of Boaler’s Positive Norms to Encourage in Math Class. Boaler’s first norm states that “everyone can learn math to the highest levels.” Try selling this idea to any adolescent who is currently preoccupied by all the social, physical, and hormonal changes they are experiencing in their lives paired with their own history of math instruction and it most likely will go over like a lead balloon. Combining this idea with Boaler’s second norm which states, “mistakes are valuable” and allowing yourself to share your own experiences with failure, makes the possibility of everyone being a math person more palatable for almost anyone. I myself was never a “sports person” in school. I share my experiences of not even wanting to try out for a sport for fear of not making the team with my classes, in hopes of drawing a parallel to their own fears about math. I also share that I have changed my mindset about sports, so that I could become a softball coach for my own child. The third of Boaler’s norms, that always starts conversations, is that in math “depth is much more important than speed.” I find this is the key that opens the floodgates to students’ past experiences in math instruction. This is again a place where sharing your own math experiences, good and bad, can build positive student relationships, foster a growth mindset, and establish a classroom culture where the eight math classroom practices can come alive.
Jo Boaler’s book Mathematical Mindsets (2016) and her Week of Inspirational Math has really changed the way I present mathematics to students. I will absolutely admit that I had my doubts and fears about making the changes in my classroom that she suggests. I also admit that I have made plenty of mistakes along the way and will continue to make mistakes. The difference now is that I am no longer afraid of taking these risks and making errors because by using Boaler’s teaching in my class, I have begun seeing students’ mindsets change for the better about math and that is a win in my book.
As a special note, I look at this post as a first in a series that address how middle school teachers can build student mathematical confidence, change mathematical mindsets, and increase student mathematics understanding through the introduction of engaging, real-world problems and authentic learning activities that increase student critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.