Becoming the Math Teacher Book Study, Part 1

Happy summer! Although there are plenty of beach days, pool days & family vacations,  I love summer for having the time to delve into all the professional and pleasure reading books that have been on my "to be read" list! One that's been high on my list is Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You'd Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms by Tracy Johnston Zager.
I was one of those typical math-phobic students who was petrified of word problems and I just did not understand when and why to use mathematical formulas. All the numbers and rules made my head spin, so when I decided to become a teacher, I was determined to learn HOW to teach math and to make my students love it. 31 years of teaching and MANY math workshops, professional developments, conferences, and books later, I'm finally becoming the math teacher I wish I'd had! So you can understand why I was SO excited to discover my friend, Tammy at Tarheelstate Teacher and Brittany from Mix and Math were leading a summer book study on THIS book! Whoo hoo! This series of blog posts is not a replacement of their study, but will be a documentation of my own thoughts and ideas for how I will implement in the upcoming school year. (Keeps me accountable!)

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Click on the image (book cover) below to order your own copy to join in this book study!
Chapters 1-2 cover our background and school experiences with math. "Excepting the occasional bright spot, a typical North American math class involved memorizing a litany or rules. Our days were filled with pages of calculations, times tests, procedures that worked according to incomprehensible codes. . . real-world problems that didn't have anything to do with our real worlds, and, above all else, a singular right method to follow or else we were marked down." (p. 4) This definitely struck a chord with me. I have vivid memories of asking my father for help in math (he had taught college math courses). However, when he would try to show me how to solve the problem, it was not THE way my teacher had said to "do it" and there would be yelling (by me) and tears (by me) and I still did not understand the problem!

However, when author, Tracy Zager, asked mathematicians to describe mathematics, they used words such as: absorbing, curiosity, invent, passion, explore, joy. . .  My goodness, those were certainly NOT words I would have used in relation to math!

Mathematicians Take Risks
"Growth mindset" has been an education buzz word over the past few years. However, Zager emphasizes, "These (growth mindset) messages are all well and good, but it's going to take a lot more than spoken messages and inspiring posters to teach students how to take mathematical risks, especially if they've already been socialized into a culture of passive obedience in mathematics." (Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You'd Had, p. 32)  This truth has me rethinking everything: from teaching of math, spelling, even bulletin boards (Who are they really for? What is their purpose? Do students ever look at them? Ah, but these questions make for a whole different blog post. . .)

Too many times the focus in math has been on speed. Chapter 3 gives countless examples of valuing deep thinking and thoughtfulness over speed. Second grade teacher, Heidi Fessenden teaches students how to have a mathematical discussion. Her students are accountable for listening and they are expected to use specific language when discussing.

A particularly important section focused on how we choose student work to share with the rest of the class.  Rather than choose only students who solved the problem "correctly", here is Fessenden's criteria list:

  • Demonstrates risk- taking
  • Strategy
  • Organizational approach
  • Juicy mistake that will lead to deeper thinking
  • A surprising result
  • A useful representation
  • Efficient way to keep track of thinking
Creating a classroom culture that celebrates mistakes (also known as bloopers) encourages risk taking. One of the changes I'm making next  year is having students use pen, rather than pencil in math. During writer's workshop, students are not allowed to use pencil when writing their rough drafts. Rather than focus on erasing "mistakes", I want them to allow their thoughts and ideas to flow onto the paper. (And yes, many students are initially terrified of using a pen, but they soon overcome their perfectionist tendencies.) I'm going to implement the same guidelines during math: cross out any "mistakes" and move on!
Click HERE  or on the quote below to read more about The Power of Mistakes and Struggles.
Second grade teacher, Cindy Gano, tailors her feedback to short written comments for two types of students: those who are playing it safe and those students who are taking risks. For those students who are playing it safe (ie. afraid to take risks), written comments may include:

  • It's time to bump it up a notch.
  • I bet you can do much more complicated problems now!
  • You got this pattern down! Try some things out of your comfort zone.
I love the language Gano uses to encourage students to push themselves and to take mathematical risks.

For those students who are taking risks, Gano gives feedback such as:
  • I see you're stretching your brain! Good for you!
  • You're really on the right track of trying some harder problems!
  • Good try! You are trying such challenging numbers.
The emphasis for these students are on their effort and willingness to step outside their comfort zone to play with math and try new methods of solving. What types of mathematical feedback do you give students? Do your comments tend to promote obedience (rules, procedures, methods, and "right" answers) or risk taking (help students interpret their work, challenge and try are common words)?

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