Us and Math: Using Play to Heal a Broken Relationship

“I am not a math person.”

As we all know, there’s a certain social hazard that comes with our occupation in math education. Folks often feel compelled to tell us their math stories, often declaring (with some amalgam of shame, pride, anger, and resentment): “I am not a math person.” And when they do, we’re left with a choice to make.

Do we defend math? Do we unpack their story more, offer condolences, comfort, or a hug? Do we try to change their mind and convince them that they are a math person? Ignore the comment and shift the conversation? Stare awkwardly into the distance until they walk away? Flee?

The trouble with any of these approaches is that they inevitably lead into (or actively avoid) a conversation about math identities with one side declaring “I am not a math person” and the other side trying to change their mind. And changing someone’s mind about their identity is a terrible context for productive social conversation.

So I’ve started to use this simple and earnest reply: “I am not a math person either.”

The shift has had some profound impacts on how the conversation moves forward, and I want to share more about my approach with you. 

Us and Math: How Play and Creativity Can Heal a Broken Relationship

Welcome! If you saw my “Us and Math” talk at the Creative Edge conference at West LA College, you’ll find several resources I mention in my talk below. Feel free to scroll ahead to the “Resources” section.

To my regular readers: This post is a little different than my usual posts, but there’s still something in it for you! I gave a 12-minute talk at a creativity conference to a non-math-educator audience that was very different from our usual audiences at math conferences. The premise of the talk was about why and how we need to move the conversation of our math identities beyond the simple polarity of “I am a math person” and “I am not a math person.” (Spoiler Alert: I am not a math person.)

I invite you to watch a screencast of my talk. I’d love to hear what thinking it sparks for you and how we can build the message together.

3 Tips for Becoming the Math Parent You Want to Be

I had the opportunity to talk about math on a recent episode of “Rad Parenting” hosted by author and self-esteem expert Anea Bogue and comedian and record label owner Joe Sib.

Anea asked me to speak about math in the Common Core era and how parents can best support the mathematical development of their children. You can find the episode here.

In our conversation, I referenced three tips to guide parents in their math conversations with their children. I also mention several resources parents can use to support and guide their efforts. This post recaps those three tips and shares links to resources.

I hope it also starts a math conversation with parents. If you’re a parent and have questions about how best to support your child’s mathematical development, please submit them in the comments on this post. Anea and I hope to have a follow-up conversation on the podcast to answer questions from parents.

Student Voice and Building Classroom Norms

Last week, I wrote about Pair Drawings, one of my favorite ways to establish classroom norms at the beginning of the school year.

Starting on the first day of school, I want my students to know these two fundamental norms. (1) Learning mathematics is a collaborative effort. It’s something we do together; it’s not something that I do to you. (2) How you respond to frustration when you’re struggling reveals more about your talents and character than your ability to avoid struggling altogether.

Simply telling my students these norms won’t be as effective as having them practice these norms and uncover them for themselves by reflecting on their experiences. That’s why I appreciate Pair Drawings so much.

But the learning students make from this activity won’t endure unless we do two things:

1. Allow students to see themselves reflected in these norms.
2. Post a physical, visual reminder of the classroom norms in the right place.

Here’s a way to do that.

Pair Drawings: An Activity to Build Classroom Norms

Welcome back math nerds!

This is my favorite time of year. Clean slate, clean classrooms, fresh ideas, and refreshing optimism. I also love this time of year because I love building classroom norms and setting the tone for the classroom culture that is necessary for productive and rich mathematical thinking and discourse.

Starting on the first day of school, I want my students to know these norms:

Learning mathematics is a collaborative effort. It’s something we do together; it’s not something that I do to you. 

How you respond to the frustration of struggling reveals more about your talents and character than your ability to avoid struggling altogether.

But I don’t want to tell my students these norms; I want them to practice these norms and uncover them for themselves by reflecting on their experiences.

“Pair Drawings” is one of three activities I use in the classroom to build culture and outline norms at the beginning of the school year.

Beyond the Blame Game

A friend and I were reflecting over a beer at Twitter Math Camp in July about how to get more elementary teachers to attend this amazing conference.  (Click here to know more!)

He’s an inspirational colleague with a background in special education at the elementary and middle school level.  We were talking about content knowledge.  He said, “My ability to teach math has always been limited by my lack of content knowledge beyond middle school.”  After pondering a beat, I replied, “Me too.”  Knowing my teaching experience, he leaned back with a skeptical smirk and looked askance at me.  I continued…

Why Lesson Study?

Imagine a football team operating like a faculty at a school site.

Players (teachers) gather at the beginning of the season (school year) for some team-building and some pep talk (fall PD) about goals and visions for improvement from their coach (principal).

The players then study a playbook (curriculum) and some plays (instructional strategies) and maybe they practice them. Maybe they don’t. Once the season starts, they hardly ever observe each other run drills (routines). They definitely don’t scrimmage together. The coach may walk around once or twice, check some boxes on a list, and give that feedback to a player, but rarely does the coach model techniques or facilitate collaboration and discussion between players.

The players practice all year for one single game (student testing) that they don’t even believe is worth playing but everyone makes them prepare for it anyway because how else could we measure our effectiveness except through standardized test data. The players won’t find out until 4 months later how they did and how they compared to other teams (schools) in the league (district). Except by then, the offseason has happened, players have shifted teams, new playbooks have been adopted, perhaps new coaching has been hired, and it’s time to start the whole process again.

The season concludes without any player ever watching another player play.

How stupid is that?

Clothesline Math Fun 1 (4th Grade)

The clothesline is a simple low-tech visual and effective manipulative at fostering student engagement, using student arguments and reasoning to structure classroom discourse, exposing student misconceptions, and helping students attend to precision.

Clothesline math activities are fun for teachers and students! I encourage you to try them out for yourself. To help guide your thinking, I’m writing up what I’ve learned from my experiences using the clothesline as the backbone of some lesson inquiries I’ve conducted. This write-up is about my experiences in 4th grade classrooms using the clothesline to encourage students to develop strategies on how to plot and compare values of fractions on a number line (4.NF.1, 4.NF.2). However, this lesson particular pathway is appropriate for 4th-9th grade students depending on their learning needs.

Tools of Titans for Teachers Book Study (#TT4T)

I’m going to start a book study, and I’d like you to join me. Waitwaitwait!!!! Don’t go anywhere. I’m not asking for much. Because this is a book study where you don’t actually have to read the book.

I’m reading Tim Ferriss’s book Tools of Titans. I’ve found his incredibly enlightening podcast “The Tim Ferriss Show” to be filled with ideas that can relate to the professional development of teachers and to the creation of a productive learning culture in the math classroom. His book is no different.

Join the #TT4T conversation!