How I encourage every student to become a “math person”

I’m the principal of a K-8 school serving students and families in a high-poverty community. When I first joined my school community, we were on the brink of closing. But in the last few years, my team and I have empowered our students to grow from the 18th percentile in math to reach and surpass the 40th percentile – with more and more learners reaching the mid-90th percentile. My team and I have promoted new student success in math class (and every class) by shifting our instructional culture in our classrooms and throughout our building – and I want to share our approach with you. Below, you’ll find the classroom-level strategies we rely on. (And in my second post, I’m sharing our schoolwide strategies – click here to read!)

Acknowledging challenge and promoting confidence:

When a student isn’t succeeding in math, just walking into class can be stressful. They’re worried about showing how lost they are – but they’re also worried that if their teacher doesn’t see how lost they are, they’ll never get the support they need. That math anxiety is so common for kids – even students who usually excel in math can lose confidence when they’re struggling with new material. That’s why getting every student on a path to mastery means using every class to show them that struggle is a part of the process. For my team, that means designing and teaching math lessons that normalize productive struggle for all learners, from the kids who are facing challenges to the kids who are excelling. It means breaking math down into building blocks, and inviting students to work on those blocks at their own pace. It means telling students, “If you don’t get this yet, don’t worry, we’re going to break it into a few smaller blocks. If you do understand it, that’s great, we’re going to build on the next block.” This inclusive teaching approach empowers all of our students to stop worrying about where they are in their learning, and to start enjoying how great it feels to master skills and make discoveries – block by block. 

Centering student ideation and expression:

My team and I used to see our students’ math assessment scores drop as soon as they got to the word problems – even though they knew the material! They’d see that jumble of words and think, “I can’t do that.” That’s the kind of data that led me to center my instructional leadership on this principle: To learn every day, students must ideate every day. Our school is full of amazing teachers, and they all apply that principle in different ways, but they’re all inviting students to learn by generating and expressing ideas. In math class, that means showing our students we’re not just looking for a right answer; we’re looking for the metacognition behind every answer. We don’t just ask them to solve a word problem – we ask them to take it apart, tell us how they think it works and even create some word problems of their own. We empower them to lead us through each jumble of words, and as they explain how the vocabulary indicates which operations to use, they start explaining how it’s not a jumble at all – it’s a framework they can navigate. In this expressive, generative role, students don’t just get better at leveraging their math skills – they also get braver about tackling assessment questions that used to intimidate them. When they get to a word problem, they know they have the skills to solve it, and their data reflects that growth.

For the students having a hard time with math this week or this year, these classroom strategies make them feel safe and empowered to persevere in class – because they know everyone struggles in order to learn. And for the students who are excelling, these strategies prepare them for a week or a year when math feels a little harder and they need to persevere a little more – because they know everyone struggles in order to learn! These are straightforward instructional shifts, yet they’ve been absolute game-changers for my students. And I’ve furthered the impact of these classroom shifts by making two key schoolwide shifts – you can read about those here. 

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