What do you do that brings you joy?

I love playing tennis. I not even very good at it, but being outside and running around after a ball is exhilarating. Playing tennis makes me acutely aware that I am alive, and I am breathing. My lungs work, my legs work, my eyes can see, and my arms can swing. Playing tennis reminds me not to take these gifts for granted. What activity do you have that brings you joy, reminds you you’re still alive, still breathing, and still have much for which to be grateful?

I am inspired.

This past Saturday, I attended a virtual conference hosted by Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project. I woke up at 6 am to attend sessions with people from all across the globe. I had small group break-out sessions with people from Brazil, Peru, Hong Kong, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and California to name a few. I was thrilled with each of the sessions. I always am. I always walk away with new and useful information, practical ideas I can put to use immediately, and a fresh dose of inspiration to keep going, keep teaching, and growing as a professional to improve the educational prospects of the children and individuals I serve. Being in the presence of these people makes me geek out on the possibilities inherent in teaching.

In a moment, I became fully aware of the fact that thousands of individuals from across the globe woke up early, stayed up late, or spent their Saturday evenings participating in a virtual conference. The Reading and Writing Project has created, nurtured, and shared an idea that is powerful enough to unite individuals from all across the globe regardless of race, religion, culture, or school district. An idea that is far more powerful than completing any worksheet or test. What are some of the universal truths about learning to read, write, and think that the Reading and Writing Project has tapped into?

 

We can look at those who have come before us, study their work, and use them as mentors to guide our own hands.
We can set an intention for what we would like to learn today.
We can stop, back up, and reread to increase our comprehension of a text.
We can tell a story through illustrations.
Good writers constantly revise and refine their work.
We can add tools to our toolkits that will make us better readers, writers, and thinkers.
We can learn alone, with a partner or in a huge group.

These are just a few of the ideas and beliefs behind teaching students to become better readers, writers, and thinkers? Can they also ring true for learning mathematics?

Last week, I was working with a group of teachers. I asked them, “What is something you might say to a student before they begin to read their books? The teachers came up with so many different responses but, the one that resonated for me was, “How are you going to get your mind ready to read this book?” Imagine asking a mathematician that same question. How are you going to get your mind ready to solve this problem? (Mind blown!)

How would you like your mathematicians to ideally respond to this question?

By replying:
a.) I will remember everything the teacher taught me.
b.) I will reread the problem to make sure I understand it.
c.) I will use my tools to help me solve it accurately.
d.) I will think about a similar problem and see if it helps me.
e.) I will count in different ways to make sure I come up with the same answer twice?
f.) By finding a quiet spot to concentrate.

Are we teaching students big ideas, universal ideas that they can tap into to solve any problem for the rest of their lives? Or are we teaching small ideas that will get students through this page or this chapter? Many of the kids I meet learn how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. The challenge for many of them seems to be when, where, and why.

I want to teach big ideas that students can tap into and use to solve mathematical problems for the rest of their lives. I want to engage others by teaching big ideas that work across boundaries and textbooks, that people happily wake up at 6 am to learn and share more. I want to teach math and interact with those who want to teach math, not simply as a set of isolated skills, but as a means to higher-order thinking, independence, and choice for more students. What if we teach using the research that shows students of all backgrounds but, especially children of color learn better when: we focus on building community, use academic language, attribute mathematical authority, attend to students’ local context, coach students, make expectations explicit, position our students as competent (Wilson, 2019).

Mathematicians don’t simply sit around memorizing facts. Mathematicians do not become mathematicians because they are fast with facts; the same way writers don’t become writers because they are good at spelling and punctuation.
Mathematicians have great ideas in their minds and use numbers as a means for making them come to life. Writers are people with ideas in their minds and use words to bring characters, places, and emotions to life. Artists use pictures, chefs use food,  architects use shapes. They all clearly communicate their ideas and utilize different mediums to share them with the world. If we teach kids that being good at math is about finishing the page, I think we are missing out on the best parts.

When teaching mathematics:

We can be open to the approaches that might work best in a situation given its characters, setting, and constraints?
We can study the work of our peers and mentors and try it ourselves.
We can explain mathematics through the use of models and drawings.
We can revise and refine our work instead of completing it all in one sitting.
We can stop and jot down notes while we read a problem to ensure we understand it fully.
We can slow down and think carefully before we answer a question and after we answer a question.

I would love to build connections with those who are inspired by the idea of treating and teaching students as if they are already living the life of authentic readers, writers, thinkers, and mathematicians. I would love to create a hub of information, implementation, research, and ideas with those who believe that there is more to teaching mathematics than filling in the blank with the correct answers.

What big ideas might you teach your mathematicians today?

Research

Kazemi, E., Franke, M., & Lampert, M. (2009). Developing pedagogies in teacher education to support novice teachers’ ability to enact ambitious instruction. In R. Hunter, B. Bicknell, & T Burgess (Eds.) Crossing divides: Proceedings of the 32nd annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (Vol. 1, pp. 11-29) Palmerston North, New Zealand: Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia.
Wilson, J., Nazemi, M., Jackson, K., & Wilhelm, A.G. (2019). Investigating teaching in conceptually oriented mathematics classrooms characterized by African-American student success. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 50(4), 362-400