Monday, June 12, 2017

Lessons from the Math Team Kids

Math Team Awards Night 2017
For the past three years I have been filling my free time with a fun little extra-curricular project: Math Team for third, fourth, and fifth graders. Being a high school math teacher, but also a mom, this was a way for me to enjoy some mathematical time with my own children and their friends. I remember my own mother doing something similar when I was in elementary school.

So I sent home a flyer. I thought maybe I'd get a dozen kids who were interested in after school math with me. In the first week, I had 36... and they kept coming back - week after week for an hour and a half of additional math after the school day was over. This year, our third year, we had 70 students coming once a week all year long in two separate after school programs and another dozen coming for math club in the middle school. Hooray! I am very proud of these kids and so grateful for the abundant support of staff, administration, volunteers, parents, community, etc. Go math team!

Now that awards night has ended and there is a moment of calm, I can pause to reflect on a couple lessons I have come to appreciate and don't want to forget:

Mathematical Ability is a Many Colored Beast 

Some kids joined Math Team because they felt 'good at math', others because they liked puzzles and other mathematical amusements. Some joined because their friends were joining. Some joined because their parents wanted them to improve their math skills. Some joined because they had no where else to go. Ultimately, despite our differing motivations, ages and abilities, we spent time together engaging in and talking about math every week from October through May.

There were some kids who were fast with tricky calculations in their heads. They made our jaws drop. There were some kids who consistently saw a way through a problem that was beautiful and efficient and different from anything else we thought of. They made our eyes open wide with wonder. There were some kids that could explain their thinking so that it felt clearer than our own. They made us want to listen. There were some kids who could listen to a forming idea and help nudge it in a productive direction. They made us want to share our thoughts. There were some kids who jumped up and down and shared every idea, productive or not. They made us feel excited and happy to be together. There were some kids who persisted in asking question after question. They helped us overcome our own feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt. There were some kids who could sit and struggle with a single problem long after their peers had given up hope. They helped us to remember to take deep breaths and let the rest of it go.

I see that any one of these traits can grow to become the foundations of a successful mathematician. I do not need to be fast with mental calculations to be a successful mathematician, but at the same time, those who ARE fast are amazing. It's important for me to own this: each strength is beautiful in it's own right. Of course, the ultimate goal is to recognize and cultivate habits in each area, celebrating our personal strengths and learning from the strengths of others. In this way we find that we continue to grow as mathematicians far beyond our original ideas.

Heterogeneous Groups are Not the Best Groups for Mutual Growth

I know this heading seems a little contradictory to my poetic "we all learn from each other" musings in the previous paragraphs. I truly loved the mixture of 3rd graders who just learned to multiply with 5th graders who are dabbling in algebra in their 'other' free time. There is so much to celebrate in one another and we did enjoy time together as a whole group every week.

But when it came to small group explorations, my experience told me this:

There's only so much waiting time you can expect from a kid who solves a problem first. She wants to share her ideas and her pride and will too soon tell the rest of them how to solve it, often to unappreciative ears. The ability to foster productive struggle, encourage diverse ideas, and grow together as a group is a skill that takes years for a teacher to develop. It does not come easily to kids and often results in frustraton when required.

Low floor, high ceiling tasks were the hallmark of our sessions - a perfect tool for our mutual growth, but they too had a down side. There are kids who are perfectly happy sitting on the floor and discovering for themselves all that is there. And there are also kids who see the stuff on the floor and also the stuff on the ceiling and want it all. These two groups of kids are a mutual frustration to each other. One's desire to climb to new heights causes the other to be ashamed of staying on the floor. They know it's awkward and try to remedy it.  They 'tell' eachother what to do. They pretend they understand. They are all trying hard, but no one feels good.

As a group, we did our best growing when we were with our friends. Some friends met for the first time at math team. Some friends needed more frequent reminders to focus. Some needed to be introduced to new 'math' friends. Some needed more adult 'support'. But people are friends because they complement each other: "I like the way you think and I think your quirks are funny."

We did not need to all work on the same task. We did not need to take tasks to the same levels. We did not need to answer the same questions. We needed our friends. It was loud, but it helped each one feel good about his own growth, and want to keep coming back for more.

I feel like I could go on forever:

  • about the unexpected rewards of struggle, failure, and challenges that are not easily mastered; 
  • about my own struggle to find the right balance of presenting a problem, but not the solution, while sustaining interest, guiding growth, and nuturing each child's needs;
  • about the difficulty of connecting with every kid when there are so many;
  • and about the wonder and glory of a community of support that shows up to help, sends treats to eat, and simply says, "Hey, I noticed what you're doing here. Great job." It's this kind of support that helps us teachers move on to the next day. Thank you.

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