In one question, Sam Shah summarized the frustration I had felt with the accelerated math class I taught for two years.
"How does your class move the needle on what your kids think about the doing of math, or what counts as math, or what math feels like, or who can do math?" - Sam Shah in his Call for Presenters for his Virtual Conference on Mathematical Flavors
For two years, I had the most wonderful opportunity to teach amazing 5th grade students. Students rode a bus from their home school to spend 75 minutes with me where we delved into rich problems, debated ideas, and created deep connections. Sounds like a dream come true, no?
I realized about two weeks into the first year that I was probably not the best person to teach this class. Students had to achieve a particular test score to participate in the class. Mathematics has historically been a "gatekeeper" to opportunity - and I worried about how this class might be sorting students into future "haves" and "have nots".
My first year I had 63 amazing mathematicians. My charge was to compact two years of content (5th and 6th grade) into one year so that these students would be ready for the state's 6th grade math test and move into PreAlgebra as 6th graders. It quickly became clear that about 20% of the class could move at a pace that would allow us to meet this goal. I was unwilling to teach "tricks" so I found myself between the proverbial rock and hard place. How to prepare these students while also continuing to build them as mathematicians? I chose to continue focusing on inquiry-based learning and co-constructing mathematical meaning through rich conversations rather than concerning myself with a standardized test.
Facilitating these conversations was not always an easy thing to do. Many of my students were brilliant calculators. Speed had taken them far in their mathematics life up to this point. Some were very frustrated when they were asked to explore, invent, and imagine. I was asking them to redefine their view of mathematics. In her book Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You'd Had, Tracy Zager describes this dilemma:
In allowing time for these conversations each day, we eventually built a culture where students made conjectures about mathematical ideas and used reasoning to explain, defend and revise their thinking. By the end of the year, my students used words such as these pictured below to complete the statement "Mathematics is ____."
While I felt that I had success in moving the needle for this group of students, I was frustrated by comments made by other teachers. I frequently heard, "Well, of course they can talk about math in those ways. They are the smart kids." I wanted to demonstrate that ALL students can make conjectures about mathematics and reason/debate/revise their thinking about their mathematical ideas. I worried that I was contributing to the idea that mathematics was only for "some" people and I wanted to prove that any student could think deeply about mathematics - not just students who reached a particular score on a test.
This year, I begin my second year as a math coach in a building where I have the privilege to work with grade K-5 classrooms with diverse learners from different countries and backgrounds. I am blessed to work with an amazing staff who wants to eliminate the traditional idea of mathematics as a gatekeeper. Together, we are working to build mathematical thinkers who are creative and willing to test their ideas. I am grateful for the opportunity to expose each and every student to rich mathematical ideas - without relying on test scores to determine which students will access these experiences. I can't wait to see what students notice and wonder this year about mathematics! I know I will learn a lot from them and I am looking forward to a wonderful year!