A Matter of Belief

What???   That was my first reaction to Sam Shah’s headline revealing this week’s prompt for the MTBosBlogsplosion.   I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.   Please bear with me on this.   I’m an engineer.   My undergraduate degree requirements were so tightly defined by the university that I could only take three courses in humanities and there were some pretty tight restrictions on what they could be.   That translated to one sociology course and two philosophy courses.   I only took the philosophy courses because I couldn’t take what I really wanted and word on the street was that they were easy As.   My graduate degree in engineering had no humanities.   So, soft skills?  I don’t think I could possibly face a more difficult prompt.    After a week of serious thought, I decided my only hope was to tackle this sideways instead of head on.

Earlier this week, I contacted a parent because I wanted to nominate her daughter for a STEM camp.   I received this in return.

“Thank you for seeing this talent in …. . She’s not been very confident in her abilities to the point that she came home once several years ago saying that she wasn’t good in math… I could not believe my ears and I am glad she persevered and she was so fortunate to have you as her teacher.”

I find the fact that this young woman ever could have thought that she was not good at math absolutely stunning and I’m not really sure what I did to change that.   I didn’t do anything special.   There were no long pep talks.  There was no special “cheerleading”.   There was just normal math class.

After some thought, I think there might be a few things in normal math class that make a little bit of difference for her (and for other girls as well).

  1. I genuinely believe that she is good at math.    (I believe this of all my students.    Everyone can be good at math)   I don’t know if this mattered, but I find that having someone believe in me can be very powerful.
  2. Because I believe she is good at math, there are no softball questions.   I ask her hard questions and she rises to them every time.    That doesn’t mean she gets every one of them right, but she thinks deeply about every one of them and has learned that she can think deeply.
  3. I am lucky enough to use a really good, research-based curriculum (Connected Math).  It’s not a perfect curriculum (nothing is), but it is designed to allow students to construct meaning.   Students leave with a fairly good conceptual understanding of the math rather than a bunch of rules that they blindly follow.   Having the chance to make sense of something means she gets to make it her own, to know that she knows it, to believe in her abilities.
  4. I use Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures a lot.    These structures provide this beautiful interdependence that helps everyone rise.   Students start out working independently (so they have to figure things out, not just ride on someone else’s coat tails).   Then, they work with one or more classmate (depending on the structure), discussing their work and coming to a consensus (the mathematical discourse is so much richer since I started using these structures).   They have a stake in each others’ success because they don’t know who will speak for the group.   I think this interdependence is good for all students, but girls seem to really thrive on it.
  5. I make time for regular review (5-10 minutes every day) of previously learned concepts.   This delayed recall helps students to retain concepts that they’ve learned.   I also use this time to differentiate instruction.   Sometimes students are assigned to work on a station based on their mastery level.   Sometimes students are paired so that someone with mastery is working with someone who is still working on mastery (providing an opportunity for some extra kid to kid discussion that helps to scaffold the concept).   The groupings are ever changing so every student knows the reality that everyone is good at some things and everyone has some things on which they still need to work.   I think knowing that no one is good at everything helps kids see that not being perfect at everything does not equate to not being good at math.
  6. Both of the years that I have had this young woman in my math class, she has been in a class dominated by girls.    It is just a strange fluke in the way that schedules were run, but both years I have had a period in which 3/4 of the class was girls and a period in which all of the class was boys .or in which there was only one girl.    (I try to get a schedule change for the girl when that happens so that she is not alone).   There is a lot of research out there that shows that girls in math classes do better when at least 40% of the population is female because they don’t have to expend energy fighting a stereotype.   My anecdotal evidence is that both years that I have had these girl-dominant classes, the girls have grown mathematically in degrees that I have never seen in any of my other classes.   It’s not that these classes are filled with perfect, compliant students.   It’s more that these classes are filled with strong, smart girls who interact differently than they do when there aren’t so many girls.  .
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