Today was a good home schooling day. I sat at our large dining room table and worked with my kindergartner, second grader, fourth grader, and sixth grader. We finished schooling in two hours. But one thing really stood out to me as we talked through frustrations, especially regarding math. As I checked their independent work, I reminded my two oldest, “It’s okay if you get it wrong. It’s not like I’m going to ground you for it. It’s sometimes confusing for me, too. That’s why I like to check my answers in the back to see if I’m on the right track.”
When I check my kids’ work, I don’t mark it all up. I circle items that they need to go back over and try again. I don’t assign letter grades. Then they are commended for going back and finding their mistakes and trying again. This happens in reading as well as math. The best thing about my kids learning at home is that we aren’t focused on getting the “right grades.” The focus on all that we do is “Do you undestand? Why are you frustrated? How can I help? How can we move forward?”
Dealing with Frustration is FRUSTRATING!
We do get frustrated a lot, by the way. Home schooling is not perfect for any of us. I get easily frurstrated with them and they with me. They make each other mad super fast, too. The social emotional component is a minute by minute thing as we work through it all. There are days when I think they are the most disrespectful students I’ve ever had and for them, they think I’m the worst teacher they’ve ever had! hahaha! THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.
Grading Doesn’t Rule Our Learning
BUT. One positive thing that I’m truly grateful for is getting away from the wrong answer conditioning. My two oldest were in public school long enough to know that wrong answers bring down your grades. Wrong answers keep you back in one form or another. I love being able to encourage them through frustrating learning when things don’t come easily. In real life, that’s how it is, we have to constantly improve our skills because what really comes easily? Raising kids has not been easy, learning on the job is not always natural and inside of my talents, and marriage, well that has definitely been a challenge, too. So yeah, the best things in life, we often get wrong before we get right. Thank goodness my husband and kids aren’t grading me as a wife and parent! I’d be happy with a C but probably don’t deserve an average rating!
This is just a reflection on a good day of teaching my kids at home. I hope I will read it again and remember that getting the right answer isn’t the most important part of learning and be grateful I can pass this on to my children.
For many the school year is officially ending. Students and their families are breathing sighs of relief from the pressure felt during this teaching and learning crisis caused by the pandemic. But many teachers’ kids all over the country are not screaming with joy because they know they are still going to learn this summer! In fact, many parents who aren’t professional educators have decided that this summer is going to be spent exploring different areas of learning because of the way this pandemic shut down regular schooling.
Do parents need to invest in expensive and boring curriculum to maintain healthy learning this summer? PLEASE, for the love of learning, DO NOT! For the love of children, do not! Then what is a parent to do? My answer, turn everyday life into learning sessions. Don’t worry about hitting every academic area daily, but inviting meaningful conversations and thinking through ideas you come across are absolutely going to help your child’s brain stay engaged and learning. Reading and playing can be your focus together this summer break. Umm…and eating, too. Kids love to eat (and many parents also LOVE to eat), so reading, playing, and eating, those are the areas to focus on this summer!
Today we made S’Mores in my house. We counted by twos, divided wholes, and problem solved in a natural way. We talked about states of matter. We even used our observations to explore the physical and chemical changes taking place. Most importantly, we had some fun, and then ate a yummy snack together. No one was fighting. There was some peace in our house, and as a mother of five, this is super hard to come by these days. This “lesson” took about 20 minutes altogether, so none of us are stressed.
So pack the learning and fun together in the ordinary things. It might not be fancy, your kids might be like mine and be wearing the same clothes for days, but the likelihood they will remember these learning moments is very high. The stories of students and families checking out of crisis learning, or not even having the opportunity are real and dismal. While we can’t change this overnight, we can make the moments we have with our family count. The connections we make now will have an impact on everything they learn from here.
The present and future are unpredictable in these unprecedented times. But one thing we can bet on is that our children and families are going to need more social emotional support from this day forward! So, yummy math and science lessons are definitely needed wherever they can be found. I would love to hear how you and your family are finding moments of social emotional support, and if you need more resources, please reach out to me and I will help you find a starting place.
In the meantime, stay well and stay safe. And have a delicious snack!
Also, you can follow @EveryoneCanMath on Twitter for fun math learning moments!
Struggling in math has been my greatest asset as a math teacher. Remembering the pain of negative self-talk while feeling like giving up was my only option…well, math trauma is not easily forgotten. It’s why so many adults, decades after high school graduation, will still tell you they are bad at math. For me, the silver lining to that trauma has always been the ability to relate to my students, and even my own children, when they have math struggles. One of the greatest compliments students and former students have shared with me is that math finally made sense to them when they were in my class.
One thing I’ve never said, and will never say, to my children is that I was bad at math. Even as a new teacher, I asked parents not to say that to their children. Telling your children or students you are bad at math is like encouraging them to quit before they even begin.
Now, I have always told my students and children that I struggled in math. We all understand what struggle means, and the good news is that there is always the possibility of winning in a struggle! Every year, I tell them how I had to stay in at recess in first grade because I could not understand the concept of subtraction. Crazily enough, my teacher had no idea how to teach it in a new way that made sense to me. She tried to explain it repeatedly in the same way…and it didn’t make sense to me for the longest time. I also tell them about how in first grade I received a C in math and it made me feel terrible. I never wanted another C on my report card and made sure I never did again. That desire to make the Honor Roll (I was a middle child and wanted to stand out in some way, and academically was my route) kept me from quitting. Math was a struggle, but I found a way to understand. As early as seven years old, I realized that quitting was not an option. Finding math success was never easy for me, but through my school years, I found what worked for me. This is what I share with my students hoping it will help them, too.
Addressing the Struggle at the Beginning of the Year
First week of school when I say the word “math”I look around to see who dreads the very word itself. It’s not just about reading expressions, but I look for patterns of misbehavior and any kind of drama that might commence when that dreaded word is spoken. I always begin the year assuring my students that if they stick with me and trust me, as their math teacher, I will not leave them behind. I have promised that to my students for years, and I mean it with every fiber of my being. I explain that when they don’t quit, math can be fun like a puzzle.
What does it take to help children dig into math when they want to check out? It takes patience and time to do it to do it to do it to do it right, child, I got my mind set on math, I got my mind, set on math…
All singing aside (remember He gave me a melody *wink wink*), in a whole group lesson, the ones who get the concept easily, I normally allow them to begin the assignment and do it at their pace. The students who have questions stick with me and the ones who are lost become a small group.
What does helping kids through math struggle look like?
Sitting next to a child who struggles is important. That nearness factor makes a difference. They know I won’t ignore them or allow them to pretend to work when really they are just doodling or trying to look busy. See, by the time they reach fifth grade, they’ve pretty much given up. They don’t want the attention! One of my students, who was desperately struggling, knew how to look busy, so sitting next to me kept him from trying to con me that he was actually trying to solve problems. He definitely tried to trick me, but I called him out. A few more times like this, and he knew I meant business. He stopped trying to look busy and started attempting the problems before him. Just attempting…finding a starting place to solve is huge when you struggle in math. I remember this from my own childhood.
When students have progressed to where they begin solving problems more easily, I still encourage them to ask for help, but I do not let them come to me unless they have attempted the problem. I can ask them, “What do you think you are going to do here?” or “Where do you think you should start?” They are so used to struggling and the teacher just giving them an answer that they often ask before even thinking about how/where they should begin. Getting them to dig in and try to understand the problem is foundational in developing grit and sticking with the problem. When solving math equations or word problems, it’s truly important to have a place to stick information to, so beginning the problem and attempting to solve it gives them something to add or learn from. If they don’t think through this first part, a teacher’s lesson is like throwing darts into the dark without any specific target that will reach their students.
I also coach my students while giving notes. At some point, they may stop understanding. I coach them to keep taking the notes I give them, but make a note to themselves that this is where they have stopped understanding. Again, I learned this from my own struggles. In fact, in my Algebra one course when the teacher was finished with the lesson and asked for questions, I was able to ask my questions clearly. To do this well, I had to turn off my negative self-talk. If I allowed my negatiave self-talk to take over, the only thing I heard from that point on was me telling me how stupid I was and how I was the only person not understanding. In place of negative self-talk, I encouraged myself to take a deep breath and remind myself that even though I didn’t understand the concept just then, I knew I would eventually if I didn’t shut down. That allowed me to keep paying attention and sometimes even cleared my confusion. When I shut down, this wasn’t possible.
Something else that helps students is allowing them to talk about patterns they notice. Whether they struggle or not, when they notice a math pattern, letting them talk it out with the rest of the class will help everyone!! Worst case, it’s also a way a teacher can help clear up misconceptions early on. The best math teachers for me were my peers. Sometimes students identify specific items that make a world of difference for their peers. My son is in third grade and has a more natural way of understanding math than his older sister. Whenever he notices a pattern, he stops and we have an entire conversation about it. He truly amazes me. We can, and should, help our students learn the patterns because often times when they figure it out for themselves, they feel more confident and the knowledge isn’t dumped after an assessment. My son talking about the patterns he sees also helps his older sister and younger sister think through that math pattern, too. That’s a win!!
It’s a Journey
For students who struggle in math, it is an emotional journey. When teachers stop and say, “I know you are struggling, and I’m here to help, and I won’t go on until you understand,” it’s a balm for our students’ insecure nerves. When they are fifth graders coming to me, they usually have three to four years of feeling left behind. Hoping to help my struggling students, my mindset is firm that their struggles stop with me and I do all in my power to get them to grow and decrease any learning gaps.
Over time, I have developed the wisdom necessary to see when students quit before even trying or when they are totally overwhelmed. It’s important to know the difference because both situations require different responses. The quit-before-trying-learner needs a firm reminder of not giving up and figuring out a place to start, while the overwhelmed learner needs to know they can take a break or use another method to help them.
Helping students dig into math struggles is such a beautiful way to help them learn perseverance and purpose. When they decide to lean into the struggle, they form a mental confidence that can’t be stolen from them. Can you see how facing their insecurity in math can help them in other areas of life, too? Having a teacher who will go the whole distance means everything for these students, and many times, changes a negative academic course into a new path of learning and goal setting! I have seen the glory! I have seen the joy of confidence from the same student who broke down and cried with me at one point. So yeah…when my students have told me that my fifth grade class was the first time math made sense to them, I feel like I’ve earned an Oscar!
Have you heard of the book written by Alice Aspinall called Everyone Can Learn Math? Recently, I read it with my five children and it sparked great discussion. My oldest, who is currently in fifth grade, found the main character, Amy, very “relatable.” Amy feels the math struggle deeply and so does her mom! I would recommend this book for every parent and educator to keep in their home or classroom library. I know we will be pulling it out to reread a lot. It’s also a good way to combine your academics. Author, Alice Aspinall also recommends Adding Parents to the Equation by Hilary Kreisburg and Matthew Bayranevand.
Also, have you heard of Nearpod and Flocabulary? When I went back into teaching public school a few years ago, they were the first technologies that I implemented in my lessons. My students and children love it. They can be personalized or differentiated for the different level of learning going on in your classroom. These resources are engaging and will definitely make a difference in small group learning. The coolest part is now they are together!!!
Today I write from two perspectives, well maybe three. I write as a teacher who has helped many students fill gaps in their learning of mathematics, as a parent who has watched her own children struggle, and now as a home educator using all I know to help fill gaps for my children. The struggle is real. As a public school educator responsible for teaching state standards, I realize how quickly the pace truly is in many of our schools. Teachers are slammed with data comparing their students with others and many times are made to feel like losers themselves. While there have to be math teachers out there rocking it, there are also math teachers struggling. We may find ourselves in both categories. But without a doubt, every year I taught fifth grade, my classroom was filled with more students lacking foundational math skills than not, and we can’t hope for growth unless we slow it down and address it.
Truthfully, I had my own personal struggles learning math as a child. My pace of learning math was much slower than my peers. There were teachers who were willing to help me in my primary grades which is why I never quit, but I missed out on recess for scoring low and was the victim of a teacher trying to reteach subtraction the same way over and over even though the method made zero sense to my six year old brain. But in high school, when the instruction felt completely foreign, I’d quit trying to learn and my anxious thoughts took over. My self talk was very negative and if it wasn’t for peers who understood, I wouldn’t have continued to try.
Ultimately, I did not want to be a math failure. I truly wanted to understand and succeed academically. One thing I started to do for myself was to continue taking notes and put question marks even when instruction ceased making sense. So when my friend would reteach a lesson to me after school, we would go back to those specific questions that were marked. This saved me! I stopped shutting down during instruction, took responsibility for my learning, and learned how to ask specific questions to find connections that were missing in my mind. These are ideas I’ve always tried to teach my students, too.
Teaching fifth grade math for years, most of my students came to me lacking foundational skills. However, learning to see natural signs of avoidance and discomfort was second nature. Math anxiety is real. Seeing students shut down immediately while transitioning to math was something I always looked for and talked about. Over the years, students told me my math instruction was the first time they understood place value or multiplication or long division. But I can honestly tell you that to get those students to that point, there were bouts of panic, tears, and anxiety to overcome.
Now I’m seeing it first hand with my children as they learn math, too. But my oldest child, now in fifth grade, is why I want to address this today. She has always been a strong student but started exhibiting behaviors of avoidance last year in the fourth grade. Her behaviors stemmed from not understanding and often led to her being in trouble. At the time, I thought she was being rebellious, but now as we re-enter into those math skills, her anxiety rears itself in the form of angry outbursts, tears, and stomach pain. To counteract this, I reassure her it’s okay if she uses her fingers (I’m 38 and still do sometimes), I remind her it’s okay to make mistakes, and more than anything, there is no hurry. She is safe with me. She doesn’t have to worry about not knowing the answers all the time, making mistakes is a natural way of learning, and I’m right next to her to help when she is facing confusion and self-doubt.
My teaching career has shown me that the longer our students face an inability to form necessary connections in their math foundation, the more anxious they feel and will be less likely to ask questions. Their behavior can become erratic and they will do anything they can to avoid math. If not addressed by us as their teachers, the less likely we will help them grow in their gaps while they are our students.
When we see struggling students, there are things we can do immediately to help lessen our students’ anxiety:
Teach them how to breathe through their anxiety and let them close their books or notebooks.
Go over examples explicitly and don’t rely on things they “should already know.” Show them how to write this in their notes, too.
Let them use their fingers! Eventually they will pick up patterns and not need to (or maybe they always will) but if they need their fingers, let them use them! What is the big deal about using fingers, anyway?
Remind them that making mistakes is okay. The process is more important.
Rely on small group instruction and even individual instruction when necessary.
Review, review, review before going on!
Model making connections during instruction.
Use real talk with your students. Acknowledging that I struggled and found a way through it has helped many of my students throughout the years.
Today, I helped my own child in place value and using algebraic skills. I talked her down from the ledge of anxiety and frustration. Because she didn’t quit, she gained in grit. I stayed close by at first and then walked away so she could do more on her own and learn a process after showing her some examples. It was amazing to watch as she pulled out her math notebook (that she started on her own) and begin writing down what she knew she would forget. I helped her mark some areas with more explicit examples so she could return later and truly understand.
The process started out a little painful. She lashed out more because she’s in the comfort of her own home. Admittedly, I used a few choice words before reigning in and realizing she was acting out from anxiety. Math instruction can look messy and we talked about that. She was able to voice her frustrations from previous years and her mom teacher just listened without judgement. We won today and developed more perseverance. That’s a win for #MathMonday!
What do you do to help your students or children gain in math through their anxiety? Let’s continue the discussion!
Here is a little story my daughter and I put together using the Book Creator App! Enjoy!