I have been diving deep, reeeaaallly deep, in to math lately. Anyone who knows me well (or knew me in high school) is probably a bit baffled at the moment. Bryn? Math? What?? Math was never my thing and to this day I still don't have my multiplication facts memorized (those 6, 7 and 8s are just killer. Anyone know why?). I'm learning to love math, but it's been a long, bumpy road.
To know where this animosity to math came from, we have to go back to elementary school. I have distinct memories of being the kid out in the hall with the parent volunteer and the flash cards, counting on my fingers not-so-subtly hidden under the desk. These memories are paired quite clearly with a feeling of inadequacy - as I struggled to memorize my math facts, as I lost the "math battle" in class one more time, as I tried to hide the fact that I still counted on my fingers, my inadequacies seemed to be on display for everyone to see. Interestingly, I don't have memories of anyone, student, teacher or parent, directly telling me I wasn't good at math; the unspoken message was just as powerful and damaging as a spoken one.
Fast forward a few years to junior high and timed math drills; by this point I had pretty much given up on ever being good at math. Instead, I chose to preserve my sense of self-worth by actively rebelling against the math drill rather than be beaten by it every single time. If I didn't care how I did then it couldn't hurt me when I didn't do well. This pattern, of me rejecting math before it could reject me, continued in to high school and I passed Gr 12 math with 57%. I don't remember what grades I got in any other class in high school but that one; for a long time I carried it as a badge of honor, joking about how little effort I had put in to the class, how close I had come to failing. The "pride" I felt in that mark didn't come from feeling successful, it came from having beat the system, from having put in pretty close to no effort and not failing. By turning the whole thing into a joke I was once again protecting myself.
Looking back now, I can see a few places where things went wrong for me. For one, I was discouraged from using my fingers at much too young of an age. I still needed the concrete (I don't visualize well) but was told I shouldn't be using it, so I took to hiding it out of shame. I was also being taught using the idea that math was an exercise in rote memorization when what I really needed it to be was an exercise in automaticity. I needed someone teaching me to use what I knew to figure out what I didn't. Finally, the pressures of timed drills and the shame that came with public comparison made me choose self-preservation over learning. Later, in high school, I encountered the notion of one right way to get to one right answer, which never worked for me and drove me even further from seeing math as anything but hellish torture.
Fast forward to when I moved to teaching middle school and met a whole bunch of kids just like me; struggling to keep up, feeling ashamed that they couldn't do it and copping attitude to hide it. Girls, in particular, seemed to be struggling the most. When I started sitting down with these kiddos, I realized that some of them hadn't even mastered subitizing, much less their basic facts, the distributive property or any strategies to help themselves figure out how to get to an answer. These kids had fallen victim to the same trap I had - a belief that math is primarily a practice of memorization and applying algorithms and they weren't good at it.
This belief, deeply rooted in our education system, needs to be changed. We need to allow kids to make connections between what they know and what they don't, we need to encourage them to use all the tools available to them and we need to give them so much more time to play with concepts before expecting/anticipating mastery.
I am not trying to shame any of my teachers in telling my story; they were doing what they thought to be best practice at the time. I would hazard a guess that most teachers nowadays are still practicing in a similar way, not through lack of desire to teach well but through lack of knowledge and understanding, based on a deeply rooted sense that math is, at its core, an exercise in memorization (a notion that curriculum and textbooks do little to dispel, but that's a rant for another day).
We need to do better for our little people so that they can grow in to big people who don't feel shame about math, who don't push math away in order to maintain their sense of self-worth.
Interested in learning more? Here are 3 great places to start:
Build Math Minds - Christina Tondevold dubs herself "the recovering traditionalist". She has a number of great free videos and tools, along with a membership-only community. Although her work is primarily aimed at K-5, I have found that I use a ton of her stuff to support my struggling middle-schoolers.
Gfletchy progression videos - Graham Fletcher's website has a great combination of information and cool teaching tools. His progression videos have been so helpful for me in understanding how we learn math.
Make Math Moments That Matter - Jon Orr & Kyle Pearce also strike a great balance between really useful information and inspiring math teaching ideas. They also have a podcast, which is great for listening to on the way to work!
If you teach math, to little people, big people or those refreshingly honest middle grade people, I encourage you to explore the why behind how you're teaching math. There's a whole world out there beyond the algorithm that your students need to see. My 13 year old self (and all the kids just like her) thanks you.
The 57 Bus. This Is America. The Hate U Give. Joyner Lucas.
These are just a few of the perspective-shifting, heart-wrenching, incredibly powerful stories that have been shared with me lately and I wanted to share them with you. The first and last are probably less well known than the middle two (at least in main-stream media) but the social commentary is no less poignant and powerful.
The 57 Bus - A True Story by Dashka Slater. Oh man, this book was such a great read. Written like fiction but pieced together from actual events, The 57 Bus retells the story of two teens living in Oakland, CA; two teens whose lives might otherwise never have crossed paths save for one fateful day on the #57 bus. Using personal accounts, court documents and interviews, Slater retells a story of gender identity, race, justice and truth. Material that many would consider (and did consider) to be delicate, controversial and challenging is expertly handled by Slater, who weaves the story so richly that you instinctively feel for both parties and are left wondering what exactly defines justice.
This Is America - Childish Gambino. If you haven't seen this video, stop reading and hit play now. I have watched this video over and over again with many of my Gr. 8 students (yes, we turn a blind eye to the one, albeit pretty major, swear word; we talked about it, we know it's not school appropriate, we moved on) and have been amazed at their understandings of what it means. For context, I work with many at-risk boys who listen to a lot of rap and seem to idolize a lifestyle of expensive clothes, fast cars, guns and scantily clad women. I am always concerned about the messages their young minds are getting from the music they listen to, so hearing them dissect this video is really refreshing; they are thinking about the messages, a least a little bit! So many fascinating conversations have come from watching this video with them - thoughts about guns, race, the USA vs Canada, symbolism and more.
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas. Hot on the heels of the previous two recommendations is this wonderful book. Stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement and the work of Tupac Shakur (whom my students LOVE), this book is also an important social commentary on controversial topics like race, gangs, white privilege, money and more. Thomas does a great job of bringing the neighbourhood and people of (fictional) Garden Heights to life, creating vivid images and feelings for the reader. Such rich discussion and perspective-taking can come from this book, wow.
Joyner Lucas - If you haven't heard of Joyner Lucas, you aren't alone. I was introduced to him after watching This Is America with a few of my students; one of the boys brought his videos up on the computer just after we finished watching This Is America. Turns out, these videos are very not school appropriate - consider yourself warned - but so powerful (to be clear, I went home and watched them by myself that night). Much like Tupac and other rappers, Joyner Lucas is a contradiction - his commercial rap is highly offensive but his social commentary is on point. When I asked my student how he had heard of the videos he said "Well, I like rap music and this is rap, so I just checked them out." I highly recommend the videos "I'm Not Racist" and "Frozen" for their social commentary. Be warned, however, that the language and content is very explicit so if that is difficult for you, you might choose not to watch; then again, you might want to challenge yourself to get a bit uncomfortable as a way to understand what he is rapping about. *Note - the video below is about car accidents and is pretty graphic; please consider your own experiences before watching.
I have not participated in It's Monday What Are You Reading? in a very long time but lately I have found myself missing this community of readers. I have been following the lovely Carrie Gelson's blog (thereisabookforthat.com) for quite awhile now and she has been drawing me back with her wonderful descriptions of new books (and the way she shares them in her classroom; I would love to be a learner in her room). I have also been doing a lot of reading lately and want to share it. So, here we are, back to joining #IMWAYR.
I always like to have a theme to my #IMWAYR posts. Themes help me organize my thoughts and bring cohesion to my final product - whether that is a blog post, a birthday party or a new unit I am prepping for a class. While choosing a theme can sometimes be a process (I'm looking at you birthday parties!), more often than not themes seem to gradually make themselves known to me until they are so obvious that I can no longer ignore them. In this case, the theme comes from the recent movie release of Wonder, an adaptation of the book by R.J. Palacio.
Wonder (R.J. Palacio) - A truly transformational read, Wonder tells the story of a young boy who, due to a severe facial deformity, has been home-schooled his whole life. Now, in Gr. 5, his parents have enrolled him in public school. As Auggie negotiates life in middle school we learn not just about him but about all of the people around him and all of the ways that his condition touch their lives. Much like the books below, this book is a fabulous gateway to discussing differences, kindness, bullying and more. With the addition of the movie it becomes even more accessible to our young readers.
Highly Illogical Behavior (John Corey Whaley) - Just finished this one and really enjoyed it. I will put out there right off the bat that, although this is a book that could be read at the middle school level, there are a few swear words and a fair bit of discovering your sexuality (no sex scenes but lots of talk about it), so I wouldn't recommend it for general consumption below Gr. 9 (aside: we were chatting the other day at a district gifted/enrichment meeting about needing to allow some precocious readers to read above their pay grade. Some kids are ready for this material earlier than others and, with parent permission, that's a-ok). Anyway, back to the book. Highly Illogical Behavior nails the teenage characters in all of their awkwardness and enthusiasm; they are stereotypical but with just enough of a twist that they are endearing - the highly-driven keener (with a dysfunctional family), the jock (who loves Star Trek and is reluctant in the bedroom), the lovable Star Trek fan (who hasn't left the house in 3 years). The premise - that of an agoraphobic teen who hasn't stepped foot outside of his house in 3 years - and the journey the characters embark on together is rich fodder for classroom discussions about differences, mental illness, helping others, friendships and more. Definitely a book worth sharing!
A Mango-Shaped Space (Wendy Mass) - What a wonderful book! A Mango-Shaped Space takes a look at a young girl with synesthesia, a condition that causes her to see colours for letters and words. I loved the way this book explored the way Mia's feelings about her condition develop and change; nothing felt forced or awkward about Mass' portrayal of a teen coming to grips with who she is and who she wants to be. I can definitely see many kids making lots of connections to this book! Much like Highly Illogical Behavior, this is a great choice for discussing differences, loss and friendships.
Out of My Mind (Sharon M. Draper) - I've blogged about this one (and my I'm-not-so-sure-I-loved-it feeling) before. The subject matter was fascinating - the idea that a very intelligent person could be trapped in a body that prevents them from sharing their intelligence really makes you stop and think about some of the kiddos we come across. Are we underestimating them? If they could communicate, what would they say? How can we provide them with opportunities to show what they know? Definitely transformative thoughts to be had there.
At the same time, I just didn't really love the book. I found many of the terms used to be quite dated ("way cool", "that's what's up"), which made the book feel a bit stilted. I also think that many of my students would have trouble connecting to the students in this book; in many ways it felt like an adult's interpretation of how kids behave and what they say. Finally, the climax (which I won't spoil for you) felt forced; possible, yes, but not very likely. All in all, I loved the concept of this book and think it could spark some very interesting discussions; ultimately, however, it fell a bit flat for me.
The Honest Truth (Dan Gemeinhart) - This is a heart-breaking book (expect tears!) about a boy who decides that he is too much of a burden for his family and friends, so he runs away to fulfill a dream or die trying. Told from his point of view and that of his best friend, Jessie, we get a clear picture of two very different perspectives on the same event. Well-written for the middle grades but be aware that the content is pretty heavy and there are some dark scenes. Again, though, another great book for exploring friendships, differences, illness, dreams and more.
I can imagine using all of these books in a themed (of course) lit circle, along with classics like The Outsiders. The rich conversations that all of these books will inevitably spark are so enticing! Stay tuned for a differences-themed lit circle task cards unit that I am working on...any of these books would be a perfect fit.
Have a wonderful week!
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!