“Okay children, take out your math books and turn to page 32. Today we are going to learn about Long Division. Who would like to complete problem one on the board for us?” Direct instruction like this was commonplace in my Math classroom when I was a student in elementary school. My teachers explained each new math concept by reviewing the material in the textbook. Did they think we couldn’t read? Why did they teach us from the book? They would also have students complete problems on the board, in front of the whole class. What fourth or fifth grader wants to be embarrassed in front of his or her peers when they incorrectly complete a math problem on the chalkboard? Certainly not me.
While this style of teaching may have worked for some of my peers, it did not meet my needs as a learner. I was not the “typical” student in a classroom. I learned very differently than many of my classmates when I was in school. I processed new information slowly and needed time to let that new “stuff” mentally simmer. If I was to genuinely learn something in elementary school, I needed to interact with the material, play with it, and take it out for a test drive. I didn’t fully learn by simply listening to someone speaking. Because my learning style did not align with how my teachers taught Math, I struggled to authentically and completely learn numerous mathematics concepts. Thus, I was always at a disadvantage in class when learning new material, since Math is very much a pyramid-style subject as topics and ideas build upon previously learned content. How could I possibly learn new concepts in Math when I hadn’t mastered the foundational material needed to comprehend this new skill? As a result, I earned low Math grades throughout my years in elementary school and gained a dislike for the entire subject. I despised Math class, as if it were my sister’s Cabbage Patch doll. I just didn’t get it. Why are some numbers written with a horizontal line between them while others have a dot separating some numbers from others? Why can’t all numbers be written the same way? Why does division need to be so long? If you mess up on one tiny step, it ruins the whole problem. I remember telling my parents on many occasions back then, “I hate Math.”
As a Math teacher, I have made it my goal to ensure that students don’t feel lost or confused in my Math class. I want my students to fully understand material before learning new concepts. I want my students to see the fun and joy in Math. Yes, Math can definitely be fun and exciting. Just watch a group of students trying to beat their teacher at the game “1, 2, Nim.” The joy is palpable.
After growing up disliking the subject, I went on a mathematical journey of discovery in adulthood. Learning how to effectively teach Math allowed me the chance to see the subject in a whole new way. Math is like a beautiful puzzle; when you carefully put the pieces together, they create a work of art that explains something. Completing a complex algebraic equation is so satisfying for me, now that I have come to view Math with a more open and growth mindset.
While I was not fully satisfied with the way I taught Math last year, I made sure to focus on changing my game plan for this year. Instead of jumping right into the curriculum and textbook, my hope was to provide students a chance to see Math through the lens of fun games. I also wanted to help challenge my students who see themselves as “not Math students.” I wanted my students to be excited about their year in Math class, not dreading it like I once did.
I believe that, so far (don’t worry, I knocked wood), I have been successful in my quest of helping my fifth graders see Math as fun and enjoyable. Here is how I’m going about doing that:
- During the first four days of Math, I taught the students various Math games and puzzles. I had them interacting with their peers to master “1, 2, Nim” in order to defeat me, the Nim Master. I challenged them to find a number that didn’t fit for the Math Magic Trick, with which I presented them. There were no assessments given, textbooks handed out, or worksheets completed. We laughed together, played together, and saw Math as a series or fun games and experiments.
- Step two involved helping the students to change the way they view themselves as Math students. We watched a fun and short video on mindset and read an article on how every student can be a “Math Student.” I had the students discuss what this means for them.
- From there, we created a list of steps or things the students should do when learning a new concept or completing a difficult problem in Math class.
- Step 1: Think, “I can do this. I’ve got this. While it may be hard, I will become the master of this concept or problem.”
- Step 2: Persevere and don’t give up no matter how challenged you may feel. Work through the mental pain with guidance from your teacher and classmates.
- Step 3: Try, fail, try again, and keep trying. Remember, it’s process over product.
- Then, I had students brainstorm possible strategies they could use when attacking difficult problems in Math. This then led in to the students creating their own Problem Solving Plan that they can use in Math class throughout the year. I allowed them to personalize it anyway they wanted as long as it included the three steps discussed in class and at least three strategies they could use to tackle a challenging math problem. The students used glitter, markers, and so much more to create their own Problem Solving Plan. They really got into it.
- The following day, I provided the students with a difficult and multi-step word problem, as a way of testing out their Problem Solving Plans. Did your plan work? Were the strategies helpful? Is there anything you should add to your plan? I had the students reflect, in writing on how useful and helpful their plan was to solving the problem. A few students revised their plans based on their reflection. I closed the lesson by telling the students that their Problem Solving Plan is a living document and may need to be added to or altered during the academic year, as they try it out and use it more.
- Yesterday, I then introduced the online math program Prodigy to the students. I explained that they will be using this throughout the year to practice math skills covered in class and to fill in any gaps in their math learning process. While this is not the main vehicle for math instruction, it is a great support system. It’s also very interactive and fun for the students. It game-ifies Math instruction. They began using it in class yesterday. They created their characters and worked on the placement exam that is built into the program. For 35 minutes, they were in the Math Zone. It was awesome. Each and every student was completely enthralled by and engaged in showing off their prior math learning. The following are direct quotes from my students, shared with me during Math class.
- “Mr. Holt, thanks for making Math fun this year.”
- “Mr. Holt, I know we don’t have homework over the weekend, but can I work on Prodigy over the weekend?”
- “This is so much fun.”
- “Check out the cute little pet I earned in the game.”
- “Mr. Holt, you are a Miracle Worker for making us like Math this year.”
- This coming week, the students will be placed into the level of Beast Academy that meets them where they are, mathematically speaking, based on their results from the diagnostic test they completed via Prodigy. Beast Academy is the Math program I use in the fifth grade. It is rigorous, yet engaging for the students, as it uses fun monsters and a graphic novel approach to teaching new concepts. Using this program allows me to individualize and differentiate my Math instruction for each student. I employ mini-lessons and work with the students during Math class each day as they progress through the Beast Academy curriculum.
- I will begin or close each Math class with a fun game or activity that reviews concepts covered and provides the students with opportunities to practice using their problem solving skills.
That’s how I do Math in the fifth grade. After two super fun weeks in Math class, I can’t wait to see how much progress my students make as they continue to see the subject as fun and enjoyable. I truly believe that each of my students will become a “Math Student” this year because of my approach. I’ve found a way to transform my horrid Math past into engaging and exciting Math instruction. It’s all about perspective and mindset. Just like the “Little Engine That Could,” my students and I are going to work together to overcome challenges and obstacles in Math class this year.