I used to teach at a highly-selective independent school for girls. You can image that the students were highly motivated (after all, their families were shelling out close to $40k for their education) and also highly capable (otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten in). I taught, students learned.
I am now about a month into my second year at an affluent but also pretty diverse, suburban public school, and I have been thinking much harder about how to engage and motivate my students. To a large extent, this question is one of the “essential questions” of MTBoS. From Dan Meyer’s How Math Must Assess (it’s hard for me to fathom that he wrote that seven years ago), to blog posts like this one from Cheesemonkey, the MTBoS has been reshaping my values as a teacher and causing a wholesale rethinking of how I want my classroom to feel to the students who pass through it everyday.
Firstly, I want my students to know that it matters to me if they get it or not. That I wouldn’t be teaching how to find the percent of a number (or teaching period) if it didn’t matter. I want them to feel it in their bones that it’s important to me that they learn what I endeavor to teach. I also want them to know that I know that they can learn it, and that it doesn’t matter to me how long it takes them to learn it. They should understand that the unit, whether it’s the percents unit or the circles unit or the solving equations unit, is just a random unit of measure. I want them to know this because I think it’s motivating to students. Most of my students (and we’re talking about sixth graders) actually want to meet my expectations.
Last year, my struggle was how to communicate this. I think mostly my students thought I was “nice.” I was a new teacher at the schoo,l and so parents would tell me, other teachers would tell me that students thought I was “nice.” But I am really not going for “nice.” I think the problem was that I came across as caring without clarity on what I cared about.
I set out to change this by taking down almost all the posters on my walls that were related to math content. Goodbye place value system, number line, circles formula posters. It’s not that these aren’t important math concepts, but after a time they just tend to blend in more like wall paper. They don’t generate must thinking or curiosity. They are just facts. In their place, I created a series of quotes (most of which I found on the MTBoS) that share a Dweckian theme (sorry about paywall on this link, but I think it’s the best place to start if you aren’t familiar with her work). Here’s one example:
You can see them all on here.
(BTW the one facts poster I kept shows the perfect squares 1 to 625, but that’s another blog post).
I also have prominently displayed Mathematical Practices posters created by Sarah Rubin. As expressed in this kid-firendly language, they are thought provoking even if students don’t really know what they mean at the outset. I surprise myself at how frequently I refer to them.
Posters aside, the most significant change in my classroom room is that I have started using standards-based grading. At TMC13 it seemed that ActiveGrade was the most popular software so I explored it this summer and have been using it to provide feedback to students. However, what I am most pleased about is that the word “reassess” has entered the classroom lexicon. I think that most students actually believe me when I say I don’t care how long it takes. Now when I am here after school, students actually show up. They know what they have to work on, and that I will give them the time to work on it.
Also, I am fortunate that I have a structure built into our schedule where even students who maybe aren’t yet motivated enough (or under scheduled enough) to come after school can get the help they need. We have two periods a week and staffing to run small group interventions for students who are struggling. (Students who are not getting interventions are either doing an ELA activity or playing the stock market). I also had this structure last year, but the difference is that now students know what they are working towards. They know which skills and concepts they need to learn and that eventually, when ready, they will be re-assessed.
Mostly here, I have talked about motivation, but I think engagement is slightly different. It comes from a genuine interest the math. I want my students to see the utility and sheer coolness of math. I want my students to be able use the math we are learning to solve problems of interest them. Stay tuned for next time…