By
Tracy J. Zager, posted March 27, 2017 —
The first time I visited Debbie
Nichols’s first and secondgrade multiage classroom, she had assigned a
challenging problem that involved a paragraph of text and a large graphic. I
watched as students furrowed their brows, read the directions, and studied the
picture. Everyone looked eager to figure it out, and students got right to
work. A minute or two later, something changed. In pockets around the room,
table group by table group, individual students said, “Oh! This is easy!”
Imagine for a moment that you are the
student sitting next to the student who read the problem quickly and announced
it was easy while you were still trying to get your bearings. What happened to
your interest in the problem, your confidence, your focus? Well, the same thing
happened with these kids. When Andrew announced it was easy and started
writing, Emily stopped thinking about the problem. She looked nervously at
Andrew, looked back at her own paper, and lowered her pencil.
I see the same body language in
classrooms all over the country, in all grades. I can almost see thought
bubbles over the heads of a roomful of students. A few of the bubbles say, “This
is easy!” while others think, “Everybody else understands, and I don’t. I hate
math.” Students cede mathematics to their classmates who get it first and get
it right without breaking a sweat. They shut down.
Debbie and I talked after class and
decided to take on “This is easy” because it was interfering with the lively,
safe, inclusive climate she was trying to establish at the beginning of the
year. We started by digging into the meaning of the word easy. Math problems are neither easy nor hard by any objective
measure—the level of difficulty is always relative and always personal—so we
wondered exactly what students were trying to say when they told one another, “This
is easy.”
Deb and I watched, listened, and talked
with students over the next several sessions until the patterns became clear.
We observed two dominant usages. Sometimes students said, “This is easy” to
mean, “I already know how to do this.” In other words, they’d had previous
opportunities to make sense of the mathematics involved. More accurate language
might be any of the following:

“This is familiar to me.”
 “I used to struggle with this kind of
math, but now I can do it.”
 “I’ve practiced this before.”
 “I know something that I can use here.”
 “I feel confident about this kind of math.”
 “I have experience with similar problems.”
What I saw that first day in Deb’s
room was different, though, because that problem involved mathematics that was
unfamiliar to everyone. This second way of using the phrase occurs when
students face something novel or challenging; they use “this is easy” as
shorthand for “I just made some sense out of this” or something similar to the
following:

“This seemed hard at first, but I think I
can do it!”
 “Oh! Now I understand the question!”
 “I see a way to start.”
 “I have an idea to try.”
 “I think I’ve figured out what this picture
means.”
 “I see what’s going on here!”
Deb’s students brainstormed these more
precise phrases, which Deb posted as an anchor chart. We talked about how
feeling confident and figuring something out are good, satisfying feelings and
a big part of why math and puzzling are so rewarding. At the same time, we
talked about the language we use and how we can unintentionally affect our
friends and classmates. We wanted students to encourage one another, and we
added some supportive messages, such as “I see a path, and you will too!” and “I
believe in you.” Deb’s students—especially those who were not yet confident in math—responded
positively to these conversations, and we watched them engage more in math
class.
We also saw students’ empathy grow. For
example, when students were adding on the hundred chart, Jules announced, “This
is so easy.” A few minutes later, Deb asked students to subtract. Clint said, “This
is easy, peasy, lemon squeezy,” and Jules looked crushed. When students met on
the rug at the end of class, Jules raised her hand and said, “I felt a little
sad when Clint said, ‘This is easy, peasy, lemon squeezy,’ because it wasn’t
easy for me! The beginning was kind of easy, but when we got to the twentysix
part, it kind of got hard.”
I pointed out that she’d said, “This
is so easy,” just a couple of problems before. Her mouth opened and her eyes
widened in recognition and surprise. When I asked her about it later, she said,
“Now I know how it feels, and I’m not going to say it anymore!”
Next time you hear students say, “This
is easy,” in your class, take note. Are they saying it to mean “I’ve seen this before”
or “I understand it now”? What’s the effect on their peers? On themselves? What
difference would it make if they used different language? How might it change
the tone and tenor of your classroom if you opened a conversation about “This
is easy” with your students?
If you decide to address “This is
easy” in your classes, I hope you’ll share what you learned in the Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had
discussion forum or on Twitter using #BecomingMath. Catch
more from Tracy at http://www.tjzager.com or @tracyzager.
Tracy Zager is the author of Becoming the Math
Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms (Stenhouse
2017), which grew out of her work with her colleagues as a math coach and
before that with preservice teachers and their inservice mentors. Zager is
most in her element in classrooms, learning together with teachers and students
over time. She currently splits her time between coaching and editing
professional development books for teachers. Although she loves her work
dearly, she still secretly pines for her fourthgrade classroom and hopes to
return to fulltime teaching someday.