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Mary Anne Denning
I love math. The pattern and order of sudoku puzzles brings me peace when the world outside is hectic and confusing. From my perspective, most of life’s decisions have an element of math or analytical reasoning enmeshed in them, whether it is deciding if we should buy a new car or fix an old one or determining which variation of a vacation we can afford. Math has a structure, yet it has the heart-racing excitement of solving a challenge and the “aha” moments of discovering the “why” behind a fact you always took for granted.
I want to teach math because I believe it is a key skill for success in our whirlwind, global lifestyle. But even as a student teacher, I've realized the many demands on teachers' time that often prevent us from helping students fall in love with math. I’ve come to believe there are five components to capturing the hearts and minds of students and engaging them in math.
Making Real-Life Connections
The other day, I was teaching multiplication of decimals. I brought in real rupees from India so that we could talk about using multiplication of decimals for converting dollars to rupees when traveling abroad. I had the attention of almost every student, and when one student asked, “So will I have the same number of dollars as rupees?” I had the opportunity to help her see math was really valuable in the real world.
Discovering the Patterns
When teaching about the length-based properties of triangles, in my lessons I had students work with a packet of precut straws to attempt to create a variety of triangles. They were perplexed that not every three straws would create a triangle and seemed incredibly happy to discover that they were right that sometimes it won’t work. Discovering the pattern was an engaging experience.
Making Learning Memorable
I borrowed the “multiply the top by the top and the bottom by the bottom” chant and actions from another teacher at the school when teaching multiplication of fractions. I looked fairly ridiculous waving my arms and scrunching down, but as I led the students into a full-class rendition of the chant and actions, the energy level in the room skyrocketed. The next day, one of most apathetic students was reciting the chant under her breath as she worked on problems. Making it memorable, in a positive way, builds a memory students will be able to use years from now.
With the introduction of individual whiteboards into my classroom, I had my first real-time, easy access to seeing what individual students were doing wrong. As we worked on dividing fractions, I could readily coach the student who was not flipping the reciprocal. It was amazing to watch her face and to see her actually engaging in the rest of the lesson. This student typically did not actively participate in lessons, so I considered this to be a huge victory. On another day, I used a spinner to select which student answered the questions for his or her team. That technique was incredibly successful at helping get past the same five students typically answering the questions in class. When students are engaged, they do start to learn.
President Obama used the phrase “Yes, we can” in his campaign. For the math classroom, the key is “Yes, I can do math!” Occasionally, I have the opportunity for a short one-on-one with a student who may typically just blend into the class as a whole. In this case, the student had recently done some great work on homework and quizzes, so I took that opportunity to clearly articulate the gift I saw in her for mathematics. The impact of those few words isn’t clear, but encouraging any gifts or steps in learning may just plant the seed for falling in love with math in that student’s mind.
Teaching is tough stuff. Convincing reluctant learners that math is fun and something they can do well is not as simple as waving a magic wand or writing a prescription to fill at the pharmacy. But real-life connections, discovering patterns, making it memorable, engaging everyone, and tasting success are the elements that, if consistently woven together with skill, caring, and insight, may just capture students' hearts and convince them of the structure, beauty, mystery, and benefit of learning math.
Mary Anne Denning is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Park University in Parkville, Mo. She is currently completing her student teaching experience as a 7th grade math teacher.
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