Saturday, February 2, 2013

"I can't do math" - or can I?

I am one of those people who used to proclaim that I "wasn't any good at math," I've even engaged in conversations with my mother-in-law in which we expressed our hope that my son inherited the "math gene" from his grandfather and aunt.   I dreaded the classes in which I had to teach or learn math, and thought myself fortunate to have successfully taught grade 3 and 4 math during my practicums.

As Carol Dweck would say, I've had a change in my mindset.  I no longer believe that I cannot or will not learn math, and I no longer look at a failure in math as an indication that I am unable to understand or "do" math.  This is a new development for me.  During my elementary school years, I was part of a gifted pull-out program, which for some unknown reason, took part during math.  I didn't catch up on what I missed, for whatever reason, and by grade 5, I felt hopelessly behind and confused.  My mother asked my grade 5 teacher to help me at lunch time, which consisted of a stack of worksheets, a pencil and an eraser, and the directive to finish them (alone) while my teacher ate lunch in the staff room.  Needless to say, this was not a successful strategy for me.  If I could have completed those worksheets, I would have done so the first time.  I stopped going at lunch and my teacher gave up on me.

Fast forward (quite) a few years, a few more bad experiences, a few more coping mechanisms and the further development of my own belief in my sub-par mathematics skills.  As I began to teach math, I began to see students who were nervous, anxious, worried, and stressed whenever the subject of math came up.  I saw students complain, moan, and even cry during math class.  It broke my heart. I tried every strategy I knew, rephrased textbook questions constantly and spent a lot of time encouraging students to just do their best. I knew it wasn't enough, but I didn't know what else to do and was resigned to the idea that math was a necessary evil that had to be endured.

I was very nervous to teach math during my first year of teaching.  I was using the textbook and cobbling together my own supporting materials, as does nearly every other elementary math teacher I know.   It was fine, but not great.  Everyone was learning and making gains, but most of my students continued to complain loudly that they hated math, weren't good at it, were bored with it, etc.  Enter the JUMP math program.  You can check out the website for more details (and you should), but suffice to say that my kids began to enjoy math, made huge gains, and started working together in a way that I could not have predicted.  Some of my kids began to loudly proclaim that math was their favourite subject, that they could not have snack yet, they weren't done their practice questions, that this was easy AND fun!

As I learned more about the philosophy of JUMP Math and saw supporting evidence in my own classroom, my mindset changed dramatically.  I no longer think that math is a necessary evil, but an exciting opportunity to try out new concepts, practice, explore, and learn.  I am now a firm believer that any child can learn math and have fun, if they have the right supports, encouragement, and practice.

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