How I Make Math Feel Empowering & Exciting for Every Student

by | 02.11.22

Monique Mackay is an educator in Richmond, TX. Follow her on Twitter @MmackaymathTx.

This is my 12th year in education, and for the first time, I’m not a full-time classroom teacher – instead, I’ve stepped into an elementary math specialist position. I love my new role because it enables me to support and collaborate with my colleagues to make math feel accessible and exciting for all of our students. I believe that in order to inspire students to grow in mathematics, we have to personalize their math experiences – and we also need to build collaborative, supportive classrooms. My colleagues and I use four strategies to make math learning feel individually empowering for our students – drawing on learning intentions, success criteria, formative assessments, and feedback. I’m excited to share our approach: 

1. Using, “learning intentions,” and “success criteria” to set student growth goals.

In my district, we use what we call “learning intentions” and “success criteria” to clarify learning and get students invested in that learning. To plan lessons, we ask ourselves, “What steps do students need to take to reach mastery for this concept? What strategies and activities would empower them to take those steps?” When it’s time to bring this concept to our students, we talk about what we’re going to be working on and its purpose. As a class, we engage in conversation to co-create success criteria. This allows students to have ownership in the learning process. 

We invite students to use success criteria to set personalized milestones for themselves after engaging in formative tasks. This helps them monitor their learning. We use prompts to get students started on writing goals for their learning. Such prompts include: “What do I need to continue working on? How will I know I have mastered my goal? What are some tools or resources I can use to help me achieve my goal?” Creating a space for students to reconnect with their goals during small group instruction, conferring with their teachers, and peer feedback is crucial. Being intentional and dedicating planning time for these practices is key.

2. Using formative assessments to guide small group instruction.

Small-group instruction is a huge part of our math model, and I like to say that it’s when the magic happens! Using formative assessment data to drive instruction ensures teachers are meeting students where they are. Through collaborative teacher conversations, we can pinpoint the success criteria each student has mastered and the areas they need more time to practice. 

Let’s say a teacher’s lesson will focus on problem solving using adding and subtracting. Using the success criteria for proficiency, we will analyze student evidence. Based on the student’s work, we can find trends in areas where students were successful or where they faced challenges. We have to think through the lense of whether the student is faced with a conceptual error or procedural error. Once this is done, we’ll form flexible student small groups and design activities that will empower the students in each group to move their learning forward. Each day in class, we work with each group to coach, encourage, observe, and provide feedback. Through this process, we’ll learn a little more about what each student needs in order to keep growing. Continued instruction will focus on these precise areas of need. 

3. Using reflection to promote productive struggle.

As we teach, we encourage students to reflect on what it feels like to tackle challenges, so we can show them that productive struggle leads to growth. When a student tells us an activity feels confusing or pointless, we validate the ways that struggle can feel frustrating, and we talk about tools needed to support them. We ask questions like; “What do we know about the problem? What strategies can we use? What learning tools can you use to help you through this problem?” We also build reflective writing into our math block. As students practice analyzing their work or their peer’s work, we remind them of the importance of referring back to the success criteria. They start to realize that confusion isn’t a roadblock on their learning journey; it’s just a speed bump. To promote this growth mindset, my colleagues and I talk to our students about how we solve problems through daily challenges and reflect on our goals because we’re always growing too. This encourages students to embrace productive struggle instead of trying to avoid it. We never stop because learning never stops!

4. Using peer feedback to reinforce learning goals.

Peer feedback can be so valuable in promoting students’ confidence. As students share encouragement with one another, they internalize how to encourage themselves and learn how peer feedback can encourage progress too. We connect peer feedback to our learning intentions and success criteria. Feedback also ties into our students’ personal learning goals. To do that, we teach students to practice feedback that feels purposeful, promotes their classmates’ learning goals, and supports our success criteria. At first, kids can be hesitant to offer meaningful feedback because they don’t want to hurt their friends’ feelings, so when they see that their classmate didn’t solve a problem correctly, they might say, “Oh, you wrote really nicely.” instead. It is important to have authentic conversations with students where we discuss feedback on their feedback. This is one reason why my co-teaching partner and I would model constructive feedback by making errors during class and correcting one another using success criteria. Students need time to see constructive feedback in action and to have time to practice it. Through modeling and using sentence stems, students begin giving each other constructive feedback such as, “Try revising your strategy starting here!”

With these strategies, teachers can build learning environments that make every student feel individually empowered to grow and bring all of our students together to promote one another’s success. I hope you’ll find some inspiration in my approach.

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