Saturday, June 28, 2008

"I'm Not Good at Math"

Gabby, I'll call her, entered fifth grade like a ball of fire. She was very outspoken about what she liked, what she disliked, and what she thought about everything in general. She announced early on, "I'm not good at math."

I'm used to these comments, but I've learned that only a few students are brave enough to speak them aloud. And I'm so thankful for those few kids who are, because they afford me the chance to explain some rules for my math classes:

  • It's OK not to understand something in math. I will never fuss at you if you don't understand.
  • If you don't understand, you must tell me so I can help you. When I know you don't understand, I'll think of another way to teach you, and even another, until you get it.
  • No one is "dumb". Even if you feel "dumb", you are not "dumb". It just means that no one has ever explained it so you could understand.
My first response to Miss Gabby, or to any student who makes that bold announcement, was, "Well, it's going to be different this year. I'm going to make sure that you understand so you can get it."

I usually have two or three students per class who feel they are not good in math. Some students will go so far as to say, "I hate math." For others, it's just the defeated, "I've never been good at math," or the rip-roaring "I stink at math."

Now, I have to say that I truly love having the bold students in my classes because they break the ice. They get the ball rolling. They make it "OK" for anyone else to have trouble. They make it "permissible" for other students to speak up. These "go-get-em" kids really are an asset because even though I have told the students that I want them to ask questions, I've found that nobody wants to be the "first" or to appear to be the "only" one that needs help. And for the extremely shy student who also happens to be weak in math, it is grueling to expose himself/herself. He/she would prefer to just blend in with the furniture as to be found not "getting it."

So, I take advantage of the first opportunity and reply to the "Miss Gabbies", "Good for you for telling me. Look at all of these other kids in the room. Some of them are probably wanting to ask me something also. So now we're going to show them how it helps you to ask me."

Now, I know these "Gabby" types. Not only are they very vocal about what they don't get, but they are equally vocal about what they do get. So, I know what's going to happen next. And sure enough after a little bit of extra help at her desk, Gabby suddenly exclaims, "Oh, I get it!" or "Oh, that's easy!"

Then, I might quicklly say, "Now, try this one." And I mentally construct a similar problem, one that Gabby can solve, so she can have some immediate success and confidence-building.

Students soon learn that if they ask for help, I'm not going to come right out and tell them the answer or what to do. I'm going to get them talking about the problem. If it is a word problem, I'm going to have them read it to me, in parts. (Students who struggle with word problems usually make the mistake of reading the whole problem, without seeing the different parts.) After the student reads the first part, I'll stop her and ask her to tell me what she knows from that part. I sometimes ask students to draw a picture (maybe a map) of it. Then I ask her to read the next part. And I find out if she can properly explain what that tells her. So often a student at this point will suddenly exclaim, "Oh, so that means . . .", and they are able to tell me exactly what they need to do to solve. This was especially true for Gabby. She would inevitably talk her way right through the problem. Her face showed that the "light bulb" had come on. At this point, I always then tell her, or any other student, "See, you didn't need me at all. You figured it out by yourself!"

That response from me is important -- it makes the students see that they can think through the steps if they are on their own, and it gives them confidence.

Gabby was always quite vocal about her "light bulb" moments. The whole class would know that she had gotten it; in fact, they would know the exact moment the light came on for her!!!. Toward the end of the year, she would bring her book to me or if I was near, call me to her desk, and the question would begin with something like this: "OK, here's what it says. There are 3 girls . . ." and she would immediately start talking and explaining to herself and to me . . . and then she would stop dead in the middle of a sentence . . .

"It's so easy when you help me!" she would say. And then I would answer, "But I didn't even say a thing. You did it all by yourself!"

During these one-on-one times with Gabby, I might pull out yarn (to be used to help figure the perimeter), or some counting sticks (to be used for perpendicular or parallel lines or for sets), or pie pieces to help with fractions or percent, whatever I could find, to give her extended hands-on time. And this became her "discovery" time, but it wasn't in a large group, and it wasn't a huge, hour-long time. It was one of the many such "discovery" moments that occur during any good math lesson, moments that many children need and take advantage of, to nail down a concept, to "discover"; and that discovery time needs a reservoir of knowledge from which to draw. One bit of knowledge (the new stuff) hangs onto another bit of knowledge (the old stuff) and some students need just a little more time, connecting those bits, at which time -- "DISCOVERY!!"

So Gabby continued throughout the year, readily acknowledging her deficiencies and her need for help, and talking herself through most all of the things she needed help with.

My goals for her, as they are for any student who enters my room afraid of math, were that she start talking (not particularly hard for Gabby) about what she is doing, or about what the problem is telling her, and that she learn to think, really think, through what she was reading and how she could arrive at the solution/answer. She had to learn that I probably would not tell her what to do, but would help her learn to analyze what she needed to know.

She wavered throughout the year, back and forth from being discouraged to being positive, but her confidence grew. And she continually thanked me for helping her, and I continued to tell her that she hadn't really needed me, that she had figured it out by herself.

And one day near the end of the year, she told me something, an event from a previous school year, that made my heart break for her, but I'll have to wait until next post to pick up that part of Gabby's story. It showed me that even though a person may seem tough on the outside, he or she may be crying on the inside, and those "heart tears" are just as real as the ones all the rest of us can see on the outside.