Posted in Education, Math, Teaching

Helping Students to See the Value in Math

As a student, I hated math.  I never saw its relevance and found it unnecessarily complicated.  Why do I need to know how to find the square root of 2,227?  What good will that do me in the future?  On top of it all, my brain didn’t function so concretely.  I was very much an abstract, creative thinker.  Getting to just one, specific answer seemed ridiculous to me, at the time.  Why can’t there be more than one way to answer 2+2?  I couldn’t wrap my head around math back in my school days.  In retrospect, I wonder if the problem was math or my math teachers?  Was it that math is a really stupid discipline or was it that my teachers never found the best way to engage me in the subject?  As an adult and a teacher, I can tell you that it is the latter.  I never had a teacher try to make math fun.  Most of my math classes were all about, “Take out your book and turn to page 17.  We’re going to do the sample problems on the board together as a class.”  How much fun does that not sound?  It was torturous.  Not only was it boring, but my teachers hardly ever explained the purpose of the math skills they were teaching us.  I never realized that I would need to understand rational numbers in order to create a scaled, pinewood version of a car.  Had my teachers found alternative ways to teach math and make it more relevant to me as a student, I might have seen the benefits in genuinely learning math when I was in school.  While I learned the basic computations in elementary school, I had to reteach myself the more complex concepts later in life when I needed to teach them to my students.

As a teacher, my goal is to help my students see the value in the math skills they are learning.  I also want them to have fun doing it.  That’s why, this year, I added in some different brain openers to my STEM class to better engage and excite my students.  We use CodeCombat to teach computer coding, the Rubik’s Cube to teach spatial awareness, and weekly timed math tests to review the basic computational skills in a fun way.  My co-teacher and I are also very deliberate in our mini-lessons to be sure we explain how the particular skill covered will help them later in their lives.  Helping students see the value and relevance of the math skills, will hopefully help them better engage with the subject.  Another key component, is how we teach the mini-lessons.  We try not to overload the students with direct instruction.  That’s why we call them mini-lessons.  They are short, little discussions and activities.  Sometimes we play games to cover a new skill and other times we simply discuss the new vocabulary terms with them.  We want our students to see math as fun and exciting, not laborious and boring.

My co-teacher and I break the class into two separate groups based on their skill level and ability in math.  I work with the more advanced group while my co-teacher guides the at-grade-level group.  After the students complete their online assessment regarding the skills previously covered, we get into our mini-lessons.  Today, I covered irrational numbers and how to use rational approximations to identify them on a number line.  While it’s not the most challenging topic, I tried to keep my lesson brief.  I reviewed the difference between rational and irrational numbers before modeling the process involved in using the rational approximation of an irrational number.  I then fielded questions the students had.  They seemed pretty set.  They are an advanced group and usually pick up new topics and concepts quickly.  I then allowed them to start on their homework in the classroom.  This way, they would have a chance to ask for help before completing the rest of the assignment on their own.  I want the students to feel supported, which is why we allow for homework completion time in class.

As we transitioned into what I’ve aptly called Math Club, which allows for the weekly review of basic computational skills through timed tests, one of the students seemed a bit downtrodden.  So, I asked him, “What’s wrong?”  His response was, “Math.”  After some prodding later in the day, I found that he too did not have great math teachers in his early elementary days.  Thus, he views math as unnecessary and difficult.  He was never taught long division or strategies for other basic math skills. I told him that over the course of the year, I hope that we find a way for him to see the relevance in the math skills covered.  I also told him to seek me out for extra help or support.  I want him to feel cared for, mathematically speaking.  I’m hopeful, that knowing that one of my students really struggles with math and is starting to not like it at such an early age, will help keep me mindful throughout the year.  I want to try to add in fun projects and games periodically so that all of my students, but especially this one in particular, will start to see how math can be fun and exciting.  While I know that I’ve already set professional development goals for myself this year, this is going to be an extra goal that I keep in mind all year as well.  I want this student to leave sixth grade liking and understanding math more than he did at the start of the year.  Sure, I’d love to get him to a place of love and enjoyment, but I don’t want to set myself up for failure.  I need to be realistic.  Not everyone can love math, no matter how great and effective their teachers are.  I’m just striving for progress with this student.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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