How I Let Every Student Know: Math IS For You

Cicely Woodard

by | 08.3.22

Cicely Woodard is a teacher in Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @cicely_woodard.

Math didn’t always come easily for me. I had wonderful math teachers, but I remember going home and sitting at my little desk having these challenging moments with my math homework. I got stuck again and again, and while some of my classmates grasped new concepts quickly, that wasn’t always the case for me.

But my family and teachers had helped me build a positive math mindset. My teachers believed in me, uplifted me and had high expectations for me. I never felt like anyone was asking, “Are you going to be successful?” There was an expectation that I would succeed – a certainty that, with support, I could. When I faced challenges, I was able to tell myself, “You know what? I’m going to show up here again tomorrow, and I’m going to try again until I understand this.” 

Though learning math didn’t feel quick or easy, I always loved it. I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to become a math teacher. I thought that, because I understood how challenging math was, I could be the one to support students through their challenges. 

Now I am a math teacher, and I see ever more clearly the powerful role that my fellow educators and I play in shaping positive math mindsets in our students. We can instill the belief that they have endless potential to achieve in math and that struggle is part of learning. These four beliefs help guide my work in instilling positive math mindsets for my students and building an environment in which they feel empowered to succeed.

1. Math is for everyone.

One of the most important messages I want to give to my students is this: There’s no such thing as a math person. You’re not born with a math gene. I’m passionate about helping students to understand that everyone can learn math, and that no matter what experiences they may have had before coming into my classroom, math is for them. 

I often tell students, “Yes, math is hard, but you can do hard things.” I tell them that I want them to make mistakes along the way, and I want them to ask a lot of questions because that’s where the learning happens. For so many of them, I see a shift where they start being able to tell themselves: “You know what? I can do this.” 

2. What matters is deep understanding – not speed or learning one “right” way.

Math can sometimes feel like a bunch of disconnected topics, but tracing the many connections between mathematical concepts is really what learning math is about. As a student, I didn’t always understand why I was taking the steps my teacher had shown me to solve math problems, so in my classroom, I keep deep understanding at the forefront. 

We emphasize that there’s more than one way to reach a solution and that it doesn’t matter how fast they go. We use tables, equations and graphs. We draw pictures. We use words. Each process is a different entry point to a concept. 

3. Math is a way to communicate about real life. 

I want students to understand that math is a tool for communication, and we can represent what’s happening in the real world in many different mathematical ways. 

Math can feel abstract to students, so I often start new lessons with real-world concepts. For example, when we were studying quadratics, I didn’t just stand in front of the class and say, “Here’s what a quadratic function looks like.” I showed them a video of a man being shot out of a cannon. We watched this guy get into this machine, and there was a countdown, and all of a sudden he was shooting up, up, up into the air, and then he was coming back down to land on a trampoline. It took 30 seconds. We watched it one more time, and I asked the students, “Well, what did you notice? And what are you wondering about this guy and this cannon?”

And all of a sudden, they started sharing observations: “Well, I noticed that he went up and then he went back down,” and, “I noticed that he got to a high point, then  he had to come down. So gravity must have been pulling him back down at some point, right?” Eventually, we end up talking about how fast the man was going, where he started, and the fact that he didn’t start right on the ground but was launched from 10 feet up. We turned all of these data points into an equation. The students could see the cannonball video mapping onto each part of the quadratic function and see the parabola taking shape. I showed them that we could represent the man’s journey from the cannon with a table, a graph and an equation, or we could describe it in words. It’s important to me that they see that they have choices about how they communicate their mathematical understanding. 

4. A supportive community is essential to learning math. 

I have so many kids who come into my classroom in August and say, “I just don’t like math. I’m not a math person.” And in a few months or a few weeks they’re saying, “What are you teaching next year? I want to take your class again.” Part of it is that they start to feel empowered in math, but I think the bigger part is that I am very intentional about building connections in our community. 

We make time for a daily circle, in which students share something about their extracurricular activities or their families or foods they’ve tried. I often hear them asking each other followup questions about what they’ve shared: “How were basketball tryouts? How did it go?” Or, “Did y’all have something new at dinner last night?” Students have the option to pass, but I find most of them like to participate, and when I ask for feedback, it’s the one thing they always overwhelmingly ask me to continue doing.

Making time for check-ins and community-building isn’t always done in math classrooms, and I think it’s particularly essential for students to feel safe and known before they can learn math. Every day, students hear me say their names and give them the floor, and every day they get a chance to listen to each other. It takes time, but the investment in eye contact, in listening, in community building is all worth it because, afterward, they are ready to jump to the moon for me and take new risks in their learning. 

All the adults in students’ lives have a role to play in fostering positive math mindsets. 

My mom didn’t get to finish college, but she always told me, “Cicely, you can do anything. You are brilliant.” It made such a difference for me. As a math teacher, shaping my students’ math identity is at the forefront of my work, but the way that all adults in students’ lives talk about math and learning really matters. I think it’s important for us to communicate to students’ teachers and adults at home the importance of letting students know their potential is limitless.

We can empower the adults in students’ lives by letting them know that they don’t have to remember high school math in order to support their students. They can make a difference by communicating a clear message when students’ confidence falters: “Yes, it’s hard. I know it’s challenging, but you can do hard and challenging things. You don’t have to be perfect. Just keep showing up, asking questions, communicating your thinking, and you can do anything.” 

I just love what I get to do with high school students. I get to convince them: You all can learn this. And I love the idea of having as many people as possible reinforcing that message in our students’ lives.

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