Stripping Down the Stock Photo

Smack dab in the middle of all of the awesomeness coming out of Rafranz Davis’s blog was a gem that stuck in my brain:  Addressing the Edu Stock Photo.  In short, Rafranz challenged the twitter/blogging teaching community to take a reflective opportunity to address a difficult issue in your school or classroom.  Taking on this challenge made me feel a sense of freedom from what’s frustrating in my classroom by taking off the shiny bow and acknowledging what I could do more effectively in my classroom.   Today’s Algebra class ended up being a great opportunity to reflect on what hasn’t been working in my classroom.  It started very typically by doing some estimation.  I walked around the room and noticed who was jotting down an estimate milliseconds before I wandered past their desk.  I saw who was more interested in their snap chat than participating in sharing estimates and reasoning.  I let the frustration build and boil over a little with my raised voice.  The breaking point came when a student literally talked over me in a regular conversation-volume voice as if I weren’t leading a class in an objective.  I sat down at my desk and felt in that brief moment like I was never going to get these kids to care about math.  Didn’t they know how much time and effort I put into figuring out how to help them learn?  Why didn’t they appreciate how much I cared about their learning. I kept putting the estimations on the board, not really saying anything.  It would have been very easy to shut down at that point.  There were about 25 minutes left in the week, and learning meaningful mathematics seemed out of the question at this point. Then I had a profound realization that changed my whole view of my class in an instant.  I was angry and frustrated at the wrong thing.  The kids in this class are stuck in the same cycle of schooling that they have been in for years.  They know that they are tracked in the “low level” math class, and they have come to accept that math is not something they’ll be expected to be good at. And they also have come to expect the same cycle of student/teacher frustration:  kids will talk and goof off, the teacher will get angry, yell, punish, and send kids out.  Things will be calm for a few days and then they can begin the cycle again.  It’s not the student’s fault, they don’t know any better. And it’s always worked before for them because they got themselves this far. I know this cycle is playing out in my classroom because these are nice, likeable kids.  They’re creative and interesting.  They’re emotional and sometimes dramatic.  And I love them.  I have loved the opportunity to get to teach them.  But I could do a better job than I am.  I could complain about the size of the class.  And I do.  Or I can change what I actually have control of, which is helping these students learn mathematics.  I do have control over giving them opportunities to interact positively with a discipline that they have been fearful of going all the way back to timed-arithmetic.

Much of what impacts our memory of particular events as positive or negative is rooted in how the story ends.  I believe the same can be true for education.  My incurable optimism tells me that something else will work for these kids and I believe in them and in myself.  To end that class period on Friday, I called on a good friend, Nrich.

One hundred percent of them participated, 100% of them engaged and wanted to be the one closest to 1000.  It was a small victory, but was absolutely essential in ending the week pointed in the right direction again.  Mathematical curiosity ensued for a brief moment (Why did one person get 1008 and another 992?  Who is the winner?)  Now Monday won’t feel like more of the same for my students and me.  It’s a new chance to bring them together with mathematics and hopefully have some fun in the process.


  1. I really like your lens of thinking about what you have control over–providing high-quality opportunities to learn. As much as we want to beg and plead and coerce our students to engage in mathematics, students are the ones who have to choose. Not to say that we can’t influence their choices–believing that has been a challenge but also a critical part of my teaching.
    These are the ideas that are harder to blog about, but vital for any quality mathematical learning to happen, especially for students who struggle the most.

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