Rigorous Math Every Day

The open-ended math from the Wall Street Journal a week or so ago was pretty rad. But lessons like those are admittedly woefully rare in my classroom. It’s a huge shame, right? Learning like that shouldn’t just be a once-a-month or even (eep) once-a-semester event.

So I started pondering why doesn’t math look like this in our classroom every day. I needed to keep myself real. Here’s what I came up with:

I’ve purposely chosen those phrases because I think we teachers sometimes use them as ultra-self-deprecating or unproductive language and the conversation just stops there. But I want to explain why these really are often valid concerns (or at least, valid-feeling concerns) and then focus on how I’m personally working to move past them.

Perhaps you’ve already heard me rail against people who say “I’m just not a math person” and seen me express frustration that the idea “math is sooo hard” is a bunch of bunk. That said, I’m still thoroughly unconfident in my own math abilities. I was mortified when I transposed two numbers in our soccer math. I freaked out when Mr. Brown informed me I HAVE BEEN DOING ORDER OF OPERATIONS TOTALLY WRONG. So it’s fair to say that when I deviate from our district frameworks, it’s a little stressful.

I’m moving past this excuse by being willing to really lean on my secondary-level colleagues. I love collaborating, but I don’t particularly love admitting that I need help. So this is a huge area of growth for me. Also, taking the leap to put detailed lessons online has given me a chance for feedback from folks from across the nation, like from my favorite ladies in the Midwest.

I was euphoric when our class completed its project last week. I was also exhausted. I can get sucked into manic cycles really easily. Although spinning my way into a cycle can be absolutely exhilarating. I need to be honest with my body and realize that it’s not healthy for extended periods of time.

“The management is hard.” That’s what people tell me when I share our latest project. I agree, but not in the way they intended. Teachers often mean, “I’m going to have children stringing stuffed monkeys from the room if I open the lesson to exploration.” I share with my kids the explanation from Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit that in order for creativity to take place, it happens within a system of order. A dance studio is essentially a bare floor and mirrors. An artist can’t create a masterpiece if she can’t dig out the right paints in her chaotic mess. And we can’t have deep, meaningful conversations about math in our lives if we’re not already solid in our class expectations.

So, the management I’m talking about isn’t the student-secretly-reading-under-the-table-instead-of-doing-math business. And it’s not because issues like that don’t exist in our classroom — the aforementioned situation actually happened last week and was dealt with swiftly. I’m talking about the mental gymnastics I put myself through as I’m wandering about the classroom facilitating conversations. Although the brain only takes up 2% of our body weight, it uses 20% of our energy, according to Bill Bryson‘s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

So I’ve gotta keep myself mentally in shape. That means reading tons of books I love even when other teachers tease me. That means blowing off grading homework for a night to paint my nails. That means making time for my physical health and not necessarily devoting hours of lesson planning each day.

Not enough hours in the day. I’m, frankly, super-pissy when I hear teachers say this, and then five minutes later I’m nodding at the truth in it. Because yes, our job is impossible and yes, there are insane demands coming at us from all angles. But I feel like you can’t automatically default to complaining about time without carefully looking at how you currently do spend your time.

For me, this has meant a intentional devotion to super-quick transition times and an up-tick in the priority I make in keeping my room clean so I don’t have to scrounge for materials. Now, my goal is shifting to providing great math instruction by still letting me be a human.

Among neuronormative folks, the general consensus is I’m an overachiever. *I* don’t feel that way, but apparently the speed with which my brain works and the resulting efficiency I have in completing mental tasks makes me one. When I think of overachievers in my mind, I definitely don’t want to be someone who spends hours constructing the perfect math centers that can only be used for a week or two. I’m certainly not that extreme, but I admit I’m still working on this. Mainly because I get sucked into interesting information online and can’t pull myself out. But limiting myself to a half-hour of prep time before class begins seems to have been a good boundary to set.

I want a system, whether it just be an internal mental process or a procedure I can use in my classroom, to ensure that I’m pursuing great math with my kids but I’m not spending hours in the staff lounge or on the Internet to do it. I suppose a time-hog that others might forgo would be the time I spend documenting my process and further questions I have through blog posts here, but the writing-about-it part is just fun.

I could continue writing, I suppose. But I’m off to redo my nails. Because I’m only going to really be a good teacher if I know when it’s time to let go.

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