One of the most beautiful things about language is that not only do words convey meaning, they also stir up emotions and memories. Often these are strong and visceral. Sometimes people agree on the emotions connected to words, but other words can mean different things to different people. Take the word “mathematics.”
How does that make you feel? What memories does it bring to mind? Is your response positive or negative?
Did you feel frustration? Revulsion? Shame? Confusion? Panic?
How about joy? Awe? Comfort? Excitement?
When Covenant 3rd Graders enter my classroom for math, at only ages 8 and 9, they already have deep-seated ideas about themselves and about mathematics. They are quick to say they “love” or “hate” math, and that is almost always tied to their perceived identity as someone “good” or “terrible” at math.
But what makes one good at math? Is it simply getting the correct answer in as short a time as possible? Most would agree. However, one of my tasks as I lead my students through the curriculum and thousands of problems, is to challenge that idea and to reshape the emotional response they have towards the word “math.”
To do this, I begin by teaching another word: “mathematician.” (There’s even a whole bulletin board in my classroom dedicated to this! I found the idea online and made it my own.) The word “mathematician” carries with it a special power because it speaks to identity. Simply put, a mathematician is “an expert or student of mathematics,” therefore the term automatically applies to each of my 3rd Graders. But being a mathematician is so much more than just quickly and accurately adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing! Transforming students from just doers of mathematics into true mathematicians requires more than fact fluency. It requires a posture of curiosity, diligence, and tenacity, paired with the ability to learn, and that is where the tools of learning, thinking, and expression become essential.
I remember first learning about the concept of metacognition in college and being blown away. It completely changed the whole way I thought about my future career as an educator! The concept of metacognition, or “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes,” means my job is not to pass on as much knowledge of concepts, facts, dates, ideas, and skills as I possibly can to my students, but to model a passion for learning while teaching them how to learn. To do this, they must know what is happening in their own heads and be able to share that with others!
So, together our class learns that mathematicians solve problems, analyze data, use appropriate tools, check their work, estimate, make models, think abstractly, explain their thinking, make connections, think critically, find patterns, apply prior knowledge, and persevere.
And then we talk. A lot.
Math class becomes a place for exploration and discussion, where I do not just teach my little mathematicians procedures, but how to tackle problems and how to clearly communicate their thought processes. We approach problems as a whole class, in small groups, and with partners as I model questions and sentence starters. (We have another bulletin board for these!) As students explore the meaning of their answers, explain their thinking, or even express a lack of understanding, they are able to use new terms and phrases on their own!
My students quickly learn that I care less about them getting a correct answer than I do the journey that brought them there and their ability to tell me about it! I summon up my best poker face and respond to an answer, whether correct or incorrect, with a variation of, “What did you do to arrive at your answer and how do you know you’re correct?”
The beauty of this emphasis on the tools of learning, thinking and expression is it allows every student to confidently claim the title of mathematician, whether it took that student two minutes or 20 minutes to solve a problem, and whether he or she even arrived at the correct answer. Students can figure out where they went wrong and learn from their mistakes, allowing them to be valuable contributors to the class discussion. We even discover there are different types of mistakes and learn to analyze our work and determine where we went wrong. Was there a computation error? Did the student read a question or direction incorrectly? Was a step skipped or the work too sloppy? These questions become a regular part of our routine, especially when tests are returned to students.
My goal is that each of my kiddos leaves 3rd Grade knowing more about how they think and learn, how to converse with others about their thinking, and that they are all capable mathematicians because they have learned to use their God-given tools of thinking, learning, and expression. And often, this shift in identity also shifts the students’ emotional responses when they hear the word “math”!
So, if you are on campus, please stop by my 3rd Grade math classroom! It will not be silent, but rather, my little mathematicians will be applying their tools of learning, thinking and expression to tackle problems!
Karen McCarty, CCS 3rd Grade Teacher