The boy reluctantly peered into his report card envelope that cool, fall day. He knew that he had done his absolute best, despite what letters were printed the sheet of paper inside. He had been an honor roll student ever since elementary school, and he knew that he had given his best the first quarter of middle school. Even with the changing of classes and having to remember a locker combination, he was sure that he had succeeded. What he wasn’t so sure about, however, was what he had made his first nine weeks in math. Sixth grade math wasn’t a whole lot different from elementary school math. He liked his teacher, he completed all his assignments on time, and he even did his homework each time it was assigned. It’s just that ever since 3rd grade, when the long term substitute told him he was in danger of failing if he didn’t pull the grade up, he was scared of the jumble of numbers that would mockingly peer back at him from the pages of his textbook. Somehow, he maintained an A that 3rd grade year. He did that until 5th grade, when his first B came in the form of a math grade. He had managed to pull out a B in math his entire 5th grade year. It so happened, that the story of the B continued that day in 6th grade–until 7th grade when it devolved to a C. And then in 10th grade to a D. It was then, that he decided he better rethink being an architect, something that he had wanted to be since preschool. He ended up being a teacher–then a coach–now he’s an administrator writing this blog post.
Math anxiety is real. I wrote my second masters thesis on it. I’ll spare the barrage innumerable statistics, but I will say that in a 2009 study, Mark Ashcraft and Alex Moore found that 17% of the US population suffer from high levels of math anxiety. Ashcraft also defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance” (2002, p. 1). I bring this up because there’s a strong chance that maybe 3 to 5 kids in each class have it, and even more, a significant handful of teachers may have it.
Math anxiety is said to come from a lot of places, but often it can be traced back to the classroom. This is sometimes due to a frustration that begins early on with difficulty to create 1-to-1 correspondence, the inability to memorize basic facts, or a lack of adequate teacher support. Now I’m the last person to beat up on teachers, but as I told my own story, sometimes we enter into classrooms with our own struggles and lack of confidence. Thankfully, I grew to adore math as a teacher due to the fact that I have a soft spot for the struggling math student. However, many teachers just don’t like math, or like me, we’re always just not as good as it as they were in other subjects.
We’ve got to tackle this thing head on. As the cheerleaders of every subject we teach, we have to approach math with a gusto that brings comfort to anxious students. Of course, this means pouring into ourselves with meaningful professional development that will assist us in reaching our students on their individual levels with a variety of meaningful strategies. I’m going to go into just a few, and the first comes from a colleague of mine, Austin Greene.
Groups | Responsive, small group instruction based on students’ needs is a powerful method for fostering students’ mathematics growth. Targeted and focused small group mathematics instruction scaffolds and increases student understanding by using the students’ specific skill sets and addressing the underlying misconceptions. Data plays a crucial role in this small group instruction. Formative assessments embedded throughout a unit of instruction can be analyzed to make decisions regarding small group instruction. These assessments include anecdotal notes, short pre-assessments, observations, and independent exercises, such as exit slips.
These data provide timely information in determining next steps and prioritizing the focus for groups of students, which allow the teacher to tailor instruction and meet students’ needs. The power of student work can be quickly lost in the data shuffle; however, the analysis of student work provides the why of a missed problem and point to what misconceptions exist. This allows teachers to group students together based on individualized needs and to develop a targeted implementation plan.
The teacher plays a crucial role in the guided small group. Once the teacher unpacks the unit, having a firm understanding of the skills needed for mastery on the unit assessment and the grade level standards, the teacher is equipped to analyze the real-time student data to find the balance between what each student knows and needs to know. The teacher provides a targeted lesson or a student-led activity and is responsive to the students’ needs during this small group instruction. The teacher serves as a facilitator, encouraging student reflection and helping students connect concepts, all while continuing to monitor progress towards mastery. Small group mathematics instruction can be a powerful tool in providing differentiated and focused instruction when the teacher facilitates student learning using the unit goals and the students’ specific skills and underlying misconceptions, all while conducting ongoing data analysis to give specific, responsive feedback to students.
Austin Greene is a Title I academic specialist for elementary math at Greenville County Schools in Greenville, SC. She is in her 13th year of education, and has served as a teacher, math interventionist, and instructional coach.
Games | Who doesn’t love a game? Games engage kids like a Jedi mind trick–they are so jacked up on the idea of winning (or not losing) that they totally overlook the realization that they are learning. They put all their effort into achieving the correct answer, and if they are anything like me in front of a Monopoly board, strategy and accuracy matter. A variety of games can be developed from just about any math standard, and providing this type of learning experience allows for application of skill that goes deeper than independent practice that simply displays use of an algorithm or identification of a correct answer choice.
It is important, however, to be highly intentional about the games we place in front of our students. There is a place for games that rely on speed in mathematics, but they should not be the go-to for all types of math learning. When encouraging students to improve on their fluency, games that count on speed are valuable. For example, allowing students to use a deck of cards and determine who can multiply the most pairs of card values serves as a way for students to exercise their speed in regurgitating multiplication facts. Having students compete to solve long division problems, on the other hand, is not the type of activity that would be best exercised with speed. More complex computations require students to pay close attention to the operations and steps required to perform such tasks. These games can still be played, with encouragement from the teacher that accuracy and precision are important.
“Groceries” | I don’t mean, actual groceries. I actually mean application, like we must do with groceries. Math is one of the things that kids will use all their life, whether they are going to be an architect, or not (like me). When it comes to setting an alarm clock or tipping a server, math is ever-present. Presenting math tasks in a highly applicable format creates awareness in students that the skill is valuable and worth knowing.
The example of groceries that I mentioned is just one application for math. Students can be given a budget for purchasing goods, and they have to create a list of things to buy for a meal without going over. Students could also determine which brand of food is better to buy by comparing the amount of food in two packages per the dollar amount. Even more, students can figure out what fraction of a package of food actually serves as the serving size, and what percentage of daily nutritional values that serving will satisfy.
But like I said, it doesn’t stop at groceries. Knowing students’ interests and hobbies will help to find an enjoyable way to apply math knowledge. The trick I always hold up my sleeve when tutoring middle school boys is applying integers to the football field. What is boring to them as -8 + 10 is so much more enjoyable as “your team just got a first down, but on second down, the quarterback got sacked and lost 8 yards.” One middle school female tired of mine was all about shopping, so understandably, we took to the Justice website and tackled the sales in order to understand percents. Again, Jedi mind trick.
Math anxiety is something we can battle just as easy as “i before e, except after c” (bad example, I know… protein, beige, weight, neighbor). If we are highly intentional and data-driven, and make math engaging and applicable, we can create experiences that kids not only look forward to, but are confident in participating.
I say this all with the understanding that the end of the day, there may just be a wannabe architect in your class meant for greater things.
Ashcraft, M.H. (2002), “Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences”, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11: 181–185