Enjoying Math in the Middle Grades

  • Enjoying Math in the Middle Grades

    By Alessandra King, Posted December 8, 2014 – 

    “You teach math in middle school? You must have the patience of a saint!” This is the most common response I receive, often with an added look of commiseration, when I speak of my work. I usually try not to laugh out loud while explaining that I actually do it for fun.

    There are many reasons why I enjoy teaching the middle grades: from the energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humor of the students to the fact that these years are somewhat removed from the high-stakes testing of high school and college admission, so that one can take a little time to have some fun (gasp!) with math. It is “during this time (that) many students will solidify conceptions about themselves as learners of mathematics—about their competence, their attitude, and their interest and motivation” (NCTM Standards forGrades 6-8). Thus, “it is important that [middle school students] be provided opportunities that foster the development of positive attitudes towards mathematics and positive perceptions of themselves as learners of mathematics” (MAA, Purpose of the AMC 8). In short, middle school is pivotal for inspiring students to see mathematics as an exciting, creative endeavor. We must therefore affect their approach to this subject and show them the many opportunities it offers. How many times have we heard about the need for more students in the STEM fields? Middle school is where it all can start—and this is for me the most inspiring aspect of being a middle school math teacher.

    Middle school math students are no exception: Everybody is simply better at doing what they love, as social psychologist Paul A. O’Keefe argues in the SundayReview of The New York Times, which is also confirmed by research. “Interest matters more than we ever knew”; it “is crucial in keeping us motivated and effective without emptying our mental gas tank, and it can turn the mundane into something exciting.” In short, if the students learn to love math, they will be better at it!

    It seems to me that middle school is the perfect environment to emphasize learning for learning’s sake, to foster intrinsic motivation, and what psychologists call mastery orientation as opposed to performance orientation. Because grades in middle school are not yet the all-encompassing preoccupation of students, parents, and administrators, there is the opportunity to create and sustain a classroom (and perhaps a school) culture that highlights intellectual risk-taking and curiosity and develops a growth mindset that focuses on improvement and boosts motivation.

    All middle school students are particularly engaged when our lessons involve hands-on experiences, creative elements, projects, and class discussions. My girls—just as the students in the co-ed environment I taught before—also enjoy the constructive relationship and communal atmosphere they build with their classmates through participating in group projects, presenting to and critiquing one another, and discussing and comparing ideas and strategies.


    Students worked cooperatively to build Sierpinski pyramids with wooden sticks and marshmallows. Sierpinski Pyramids


    In my blogs I plan to show how one can spark, or keep vibrant, the enthusiasm of our middle school charges and talk about cooperative projects or group activities that enrich the math experience of the students. Read more in two weeks about other engaging math tasks.



    King_Alessandra_100x140Alessandra King, Alessandra.king@holton-arms.edu, studies mathematics with her students at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. She has taught mathematics and physics at the middle school and high school levels and is interested in creative problem solving, critical thinking, and quantitative reasoning.





    Archived Comments

    You make some great points here! I've seen research about how girls become less interested in math/STEM in middle school (and I've seen it in my school as well). Collaboration and hands-on projects like you mention, that allow students to express their creativity, work together, and solve common problems are really great for showing students (girls in particular) that math is a useful and enjoyable subject. Great post. Thanks for sharing!
    Posted by: KatieH_46014 at 12/19/2014 12:46 PM


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