To Promote Students’ Math Progress, Support Their Math Emotions

by | 09.30.21

Adam Yankay is a math teacher in Virginia. Connect with Adam on Twitter @ItsAMrY.

As a high school math teacher, I know that a lot of my students experience negative emotions as soon as they step into our classrooms for the first time. I’ve always wanted to make students feel comfortable and confident in math class, not anxious or afraid. For a while, I thought if I just used strong teaching strategies and inspiring language, my students would feel empowered to achieve – but it wasn’t quite working. I realized that I couldn’t encourage my students to adopt new, positive math identities or make great progress unless I first created space for them to share the emotions and experiences that they were carrying into my classroom. 

That really transformed my practice – because now, I begin by building a culture of trust, reflection and affirmation with my new learners, and together, we build a math classroom that promotes every student’s growth. Here’s my approach:

1. I invite students to create a word cloud of “math class emotions.”

On the first day of class, I sit down with my students and ask them: What are three words that express your emotions during math class? Not about math itself – although that’s important, too – but about how they usually feel about the experience of being in math class. I use an interactive program called Mentimeter for this: After students type their words into a smartphone or laptop, a word cloud forms, which I project at the front of our classroom. I love this system because it allows students to share their words anonymously, and that really matters – it makes them feel safe enough to be honest about what math class has really been like for them.

2. I build a culture of trust by affirming students’ experiences.

Next, I ask students what they notice about the word cloud, and they usually observe that the response is pretty negative. Then I pick a few words and invite them to share their emotional associations – and because I’m choosing the words, they can respond without revealing which ones were theirs. During this step, I’m very intentional about listening and responding in ways that show affirmation, never judgment. Creating a sense of unconditional support is so important in this moment: It’s the first time my students are sharing emotions in our new classroom community, so it’s my first chance to start building trust.

As students see me affirming what they share, they start opening up and finding commonalities. For example, if it’s a group of students who are repeating Algebra I, they learn that most or all feel ashamed to be back in this class – and most or all feel afraid that it means they’re stupid and can’t achieve. By making them feel safe enough to share these fears and worries, I’m laying the groundwork to make them feel safe enough to experience math in empowering ways – and to make incredible progress.

3. I invite student reflections to inform my practice.

Next, I ask my students to build a new word cloud by answering this question: What are three emotions you would like to feel during math class? It’s always great to see a lot of positive words collecting – but I know that it’s too early to ask my students to brainstorm ways they might get from the first cloud to the second. If I asked them to start thinking about strategies that could turn their emotions around, I could undermine the trust I’ve built so far. Instead, I give them a reflective assignment: I ask them to pick the three words that express how they usually feel in math class and write about a specific time or two. Then I ask them to pick the three words that describe how they’d like to feel and write about any times they may have experienced those positive emotions in a math class.

Students type their reflections into a Google doc, and I add questions to learn more about what it feels like when they hit a roadblock in math class. This builds more trust, but it also prepares me to support them effectively in the year ahead: The first time they struggle to solve a problem or understand a concept in my class, I already know what they’re feeling, and I already have strategies in mind for empowering them to persevere.

4. I use ongoing dialogue to map out an empowering math journey. 

As classes progress, I add questions to these docs that can help me understand the ways my students feel most comfortable learning in general: When they make a discovery, do they like sharing it out loud or writing about it? When they work in a group, do they like to be the one who leads each step, or records progress, or generates questions? Right away, I start using their replies to inform my lesson plans, such as putting students together who can inspire and encourage one another. I also use these docs to make sure I’m finding ways to showcase strengths and shout out contributions every student brings to our class – for example, when one student asks a question and another answers, I thank each of them, because they’ve each made a valuable contribution to our shared learning. By sustaining these private dialogues with my students in our Google docs, I can create learning experiences that encourage each of them – and a classroom culture that empowers all of them to succeed.

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