We Are All Math People

By Dean Deaver, 4th Grade Math Teacher

Math is that academic four letter word that tends to divide learners. Someone either is a “math person” or not. We hear it from students, parents, and yes, other educators. During a student-led conference, a parent said, “My daughter doesn’t need to learn math, just reading.” People nonchalantly say, “I am just not good at math.” It is so prevalent, it is accepted as truth.

The truth is that we use math and we do not even realize it. It is used in cooking, sports, driving, shopping, money, building, time, coding, weather, music, politics, and much more. However, we already know that, right? Is any of this new to most educators? We use math, we just do not call it math.

The ongoing challenge is changing the message to a positive math mindset. As an elementary educator and adjunct professor for a university’s teaching credential program, changing that mindset takes time and purposeful modeling. The objective is to make math a positive, inclusive, and supportive way of life. How can we (emphasis on we) do this?

This is a picture of our Class Norms for math that is presented and discussed the first week of school. I truly cannot take credit for this list, nor did I even write it, but I definitely use it. (Notice this is a “We” example.) It is more than a list, it is our expectations, our “go to” words of encouragement when someone is struggling. It is our mindset. “We” are in this together.

Number Talks and Rotations are current academic buzzwords and practices. Both are relevant, practical, useful, and effective. The bottomline for both of these is getting our learners to use and learn “math” in a non-formal and relaxed format where the learners are encouraged to try. Just try. Students need to know that persevering through challenges will help them to be successful in math. The inference in both of these is “We” learn together.

After reviewing the standard(s) and stating the objective in my heterogenous rotation groups, I ask “How would you like to solve this problem? Would you like to use paper, the table, manipulatives, work with a partner or on your own?” Reread those questions. Can you see the mindset message? The engagement level is always high. The learning always happens and happens at their individual choice and pace. The learning happens together as a group from and with each other. To be clear, not every learner shows mastery of the standard right away or in some cases, for years. However, the learner does show learning and growth and we do it together.

Growth Mindset. This is more than a math mindset, it should be a life learner mindset. In math, the evidence of growth tends to be easier to identify. For example, my special needs student (Fourth Grader) who reads at a below first grade level and has mastery of first or some second grade math, just learned his sevens and eights multiplication facts. This happened after working one on one with the student teacher in our Resource Specialist Program. Yes, another example of “we.” He was excited to tell me that he mastered those facts and now his learning confidence is higher!

Ask your scholars about what they think about math. Many will give the typical negative replies. But sometimes, you get this:

“I like math because you have to think a lot about the problem and make sure you do everything correctly to solve the problem.” — 4th grade boy
“Math is like an adventure. So, you understand one standard over and over again and then, a new problem shows up. Now you have to solve the new problem. That’s how math be totally fun.” — 4th grade girl

The message of the Math Mindset is that when “We” work together and model a growth mindset, then it becomes less about math and more about learning together. From there, the simple math concepts are mastered which can lead to higher academic math concepts. More importantly, we set a path for our students, at all levels of education, to recognize that there is not this great divide of being a “math person” or not. It just so happens that we do not all use or practice the same type of math. However, we are all math people. As we promote and model this message of the math mindset, inevitably, more younger scholars will be inspired to pursue those higher academic levels of “math” through engineering, science, or maybe finding the solution to some world problem. It starts and ends with “We.”

So what do you say, how can WE change the message of the math mindset? We can learn from each other, because, we are all math people.

Dean Deaver is a 4th grade teacher at Monroe Elementary in Riverside, California. He is also an adjunct professor at California Baptist University in Riverside, California. His classroom is a Personalized Learning environment. He can be followed on social media @DeaverDean on Twitter and ddeaver927 on Instagram.

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