MathMonster

Today wraps up Teacher Appreciation Week. There’s been lots of good stuff at Twitter’s #ThankATeacher. Our Education Post “Coffee Break” features a phenomenal math teacher, Dr. Valerie Camille Jones, this week (and includes–at no extra cost!–a sneak peek at what sounds like a great upcoming movie).

Here in Colorado, Denver Public Schools is spotlighting their great teachers all throughout May. And here at Great Equalizer, Weld County fifth-grade teacher Jessica Moore tells us about a fierce math teacher who inspired her to master the subject and become a “math monster” for her own students.

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By Jessica Moore

I will never forget my high school math teacher, Mrs. Stiffler. I remember her as a fiery, red-headed force of nature who taught me  a whole lot about resilience. She was both quirky yet intense, and I could never quite decide if I was afraid of or in awe of her.

She had exceedingly high expectations for every student in her class, including me. Now, as a teacher myself,  I often think back to my time in her classroom as being great preparation for my own experience with students who struggle to understand math.

Prior to being placed in Mrs. Stiffler’s class, I successfully managed to fail every math class I had ever taken, despite seeing Bs and Cs on my report cards. The teachers would lecture; I would try to follow along, yet never understood anything about what they were saying.

I could do basic math with little problem, but beyond that, I lacked  conceptual understanding of the material. Of course this was a problem, since none of my teachers either a.) bothered to teach conceptual and foundational thinking, b.) adjusted their instruction or differentiated based on specific student needs or c.) had much of a concern for whether their students were learning what they were supposed to know. Now from my vantage point as a teacher in 2016, I think it was “all of the above.”

In my school experience, from an early age, there was limited small-group or differentiated instruction. Everything was taught the same way to the whole group passively, and little of the work required active learning–critical thinking or problem solving–which made it fairly easy to fly under the radar if needed.

In my ninth grade Algebra class, for example, I was absolutely lost from day one. I failed, literally, every single test that I took that year, despite studying and participating in class on a daily basis. Yet surprisingly, I earned C’s, which considering the emotional toll it was taking on me to feel so utterly “dumb” on a daily basis, was fine with me. I just wanted to get through the class and move on. The reason for the C’s? Homework. I did it every night and turned it in every day and that was worth something in this class. So whether I actually understood the concepts or not, I got by.

That is, until I met the red-headed “math monster,” Mrs. Stiffler.

The only thing that I had heard about this lady was that she was “mean” (except I remember it in more of the teenager lingo…). I didn’t worry about that too much; I just figured if I did my work like usual, I would make it through.

I was dead wrong. I had an F on my first six-week progress report and for the first time in my entire life, I listened on as a teacher told me, along with my parents, that I was going to “FAIL if I didn’t get my act together.”

To her, going through the motions wasn’t good enough. Despite what appeared to be an inability to understand math, she believed that I was capable of much better learning. She set a higher bar for me.

I left that day, both devastated and somewhat demoralized, but I knew that the answer was NOT to give up because the content was hard, but to consider the underlying cause of my struggle.

What I was lacking was the core knowledge of HOW math works–a foundation that would prove to make all the difference. I had always been taught the shortcuts to solving problems. And while memorizing pneumonic devices helped me recall the necessary steps in solving math problems, it did nothing to help me make sense of why math works the way it does.

Many people have seen the dad who took to social media to protest this exact aspect of “new” or “Common Core” math. He argued that knowing why an answer makes sense and being able to articulate, in writing, where an error in thinking occurred are unnecessary. Simply put, he said, “In the real world, simplification is valued over complication.” From personal experience, I can confidently say that he is completely missing the point of deep, conceptual learning!

For myself, as well as so many of my students, it’s the “why” that connects the dots in their line of thinking. Without understanding how numbers work, applying numbers to complex, multi-step problems using increasingly more sophisticated math, can feel impossible. Our job as educators is to challenge our students to develop deep thinking skills and the necessary knowledge to be successful in whatever they choose to pursue after high school.

That’s the power of the Common Core, critical thinking, and high standards.

Teaching students to memorize the formula and take the shortcut doesn’t help anyone, least of all the student.

I’ve shared my experiences in Mrs. Stiffler’s class with my own students year after year. I let them know how overwhelming abstract geometry was for me, as well as the fact that I voluntarily enrolled in her class the following year as a result of how she was able to help me truly learn the material.

I share my struggles with them in order to illustrate that learning isn’t easy, but the sense of pride and accomplishment that come through productive struggle are priceless. I always tell them that one of my proudest moments in my life was earning an A on my fourth quarter report card in Algebra II.

Higher standards, conceptual learning, and a fiery red-headed math teacher who believed in my ability to succeed led me to embrace the value of productive struggle. Now instead of setting comfortable standards for my students, I am raising the bar and developing partnerships with them in order to show them they CAN do it.

They CAN reach–and roar past–the higher bar we set for them.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?