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The Twenty-First-Century Mathematics Classroom

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Students sitting quietly in rows, raising hands to answer questions, and dutifully taking notes. Is this a description of the perfect classroom? Perhaps in a classic movie or in 1950. Today? Not so much. The world has shifted from manufacturing to one that integrates technologies and cultures in a social setting. How has the mathematics classroom changed?

Through coaching, I have seen a teacher in Minnesota use grouping strategies and sentence frames to focus student conversation and interaction around solving tasks and justifying reasoning. Students learn not just to look at the answer but also to begin conversations with “I agree with you because …” or “I disagree with you because …” as they make sense of the task at hand. A teacher in Oregon guides students to reference informational text and classmates as resources before requesting her support. The teacher and students are collectively building a community of learners who can challenge one another to make sense of problems. A teacher in Illinois encourages students to wonder about mathematics and use inquiry to learn.

Recently, I watched a geometry teacher draw an xy-coordinate plane on the carpet with chalk and depict a three-dimensional graph by standing as the z-axis to clarify the concept for students. Another teacher in that same department showed an interactive video of fireworks on a SMART Board™® to model quadratic equations and had students develop the models. A third teacher used calculators to see how students were answering questions and connecting the multiple representations of functions.

These mathematics teachers are everywhere, helping students reason and make sense of problems while building time for them to productively struggle toward that understanding. Mathematics teachers are working to bring students into the process of learning and use formative assessment to help the students themselves articulate what they understand and are still working to learn. The classroom is transformed into a lab, and students develop the habits of mind to connect the concepts they have learned to real-life contexts and reason logically.

Such understanding doesn’t happen in quiet rows. It happens in the structured interactions facilitated and directed by you.

 
SchuhlSarahSarah Schuhl has worked as a secondary mathematics teacher and instructional coach for twenty years, is an author, former MT Editorial Panel Chair, and consultant.  She enjoys working with teachers to find instructional and assessment practices that result in student learning 

 

 

 

You Matter

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In every school, educators with diverse backgrounds and a wide array of expertise collectively work to teach students fundamental skills and prepare them to lead independent, productive lives. Every teacher—from the language arts classroom to the drama stage to the woodworking shop and back to social studies, science, and Spanish—plays an important role in cultivating intelligent, well-rounded thinkers and citizens.

But I’ll let you in on a secret, mathematics teacher: Your work is as vital to your students’ future success as the air they breathe.

Mathematical ability has emerged as the single most critical skill that schools must develop in students to open doors to future opportunities. Whether the students you work with are headed to college or a career, their ability to choose a path for themselves and pursue their dreams is rooted in the depth of their understanding of how mathematics works and quantifies the world around them.

Today, more than at any other time in human history, we live in a world of technology that constantly reinvents itself, a world of scientific inquiry and discovery. Mathematics is the bedrock on which science and technology advance.

Students need computational skill and numeric fluency, but, even more, they need to own mathematical understanding in a deep and personal way that allows them to pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering, medicine, design, or any other field they might select.

Our world may indeed be flat, but, to the students you serve, it is also an infinite plane that joins us all together. The work you do to help students see the mathematics all around them makes it possible for them be successful today and into tomorrow.

The responsibility that you own as a mathematics teacher is a massive and altogether worthwhile one. Every subject and every teacher are important to each student’s overall growth, just as all the members of the band must work together to create a song. But there is only one rock star in the group: It’s you.


SchuhlSarahSarah Schuhl has worked as a secondary mathematics teacher and instructional coach for twenty years, is an author, former MT Editorial Panel Chair, and consultant.  She enjoys working with teachers to find instructional and assessment practices that result in student learning 

Not Alone

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Sometimes, it seems, mathematics teachers live on an island, separated from teachers of other subject areas. When other teachers use or reference mathematics, they generally do so with the expectation that students have already learned the content in our classrooms. Where are the help and support from colleagues? Why must mathematics teachers bear the responsibility for helping all students learn mathematics when all teachers are supporting students in learning the reading and writing standards in a schoolwide literacy framework?

This is a question I hear often, a belief I once held, and a mindset in need of changing. Perhaps it is time to look at the issue through a new lens. How are the other subject area teachers working to support students’ learning in mathematics classrooms?

The November 2013 issue of Educational Leadership focused on teaching students to read and access informational text. As I read the journal, several statements struck me as similar to teaching students to read high-level tasks and mathematical texts.

Ehrenworth mentions teachers in subject areas needing to find text that is “accessible, engaging and complex”; if sufficiently complex, the informational text allows students to integrate ideas and feel success in meeting the challenge, gaining “new insights and epiphanies” through solving the task (Ehrenworth 2013, p. 18). Don’t we mathematics teachers do the same thing when finding worthwhile high cognitive tasks to use in class? What are students learning in other areas that will help us?

Frey and Fisher (2013) establish several considerations for reading informational text, three of which include a connection to mathematics learning: establish purpose, use close reading, and use collaborative conversations (pp. 35–37). Why should students engage in a task? What is the purpose of the work, and why does an answer need to be found? Can students generate their own questions? How can they interact with one another to challenge one another to solve problems using collective strategies? In close reading, teachers provide short passages and model posing questions while reading the text to monitor one’s own thinking. Students learn to annotate text and answer text-dependent questions that require critical thinking and to reread passages as needed.

Sound familiar? Perhaps the literacy framework used in cross-curricular areas can support students in learning mathematics. One challenge is for us to recognize the connections and tap into the strategies that students are already learning. Another challenge is to allow students time to struggle productively when solving problems and to develop curiosity to ask more questions and explore the true beauty of mathematics.

A teacher in Oregon recently shared with me the gains made by students in her Algebra 1 and Calculus AP classes when she started to focus on reading informational text as part of a schoolwide literacy program. Perhaps we all are working to deepen students’ critical thinking skills, and perhaps the island is really a community.

References 

Frey, Nancy, and Douglas Fisher. 2013. “Points of Entry.” Educational Leadership 71 (3): 35 – 38.
Ehrenworth, Mary. 2013. “Unlocking the Secrets of Complex Text.” Educational Leadership 71 (3): 16–21.


SchuhlSarahSarah Schuhl has worked as a secondary mathematics teacher and instructional coach for twenty years, is an author, former MT Editorial Panel Chair, and consultant.  She enjoys working with teachers to find instructional and assessment practices that result in student learning 

Light the Fire

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MTclassroomTeaching is exhausting work, and on the wrong day it can quickly become exasperating. Classes are crowded, supplies are short, and the expectations of administrators and parents alike are soaring. What is a well-trained and well-intentioned mathematics teacher to do?

            The answer is in the eyes of the student.

You know the one—quiet, eyes on the floor, sitting in the back row and avoiding every opportunity to join the class discussion or volunteer an answer. But look closer and see the opportunity before you. That student, the one whom you struggle to reach, is both the antidote for your fatigue and the reason you teach every day. That student, in the face of all the challenges of the job that confront you, is your fountain of youth and your gold strike wrapped inside a backpack.

Put aside your justifiable frustration with what has been handed to you at work and see the student who needs you most. Reach that student on his or her terms, at the point of ability he or she presents you, no matter how high or low. Teach that student right there something new.

Light the flame hidden inside that student with something you know or something you made. Stoke that fire until there is a blaze of new knowledge and skill roaring where yesterday there was nothing.

And watch the chains of work come undone, replaced by the satisfaction of a job well done.

Overcoming the challenges of the classroom is not easy. Reaching that reluctant or discouraged student will require all the knowledge, skill, experience, creativity, and perseverance you can muster and sustain. Perhaps all at once.

Every day that you enter the classroom you take on an arduous task as complex as surgery, as combustible as rocket science. You are the teacher, the expert, the person who can show that student the magic in mathematics and help him or her advance toward dreams that seem out of reach.

Are you exhausted? Are you exasperated? Get up and teach anyway.

That student is counting on you.


SchuhlSarahSarah Schuhl has worked as a secondary mathematics teacher and instructional coach for twenty years, is an author, former MT Editorial Panel Chair, and consultant.  She enjoys working with teachers to find instructional and assessment practices that result in student learning 

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