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Introductory Scenario

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Algebra Does Jessica and Sam

How many times does a teacher think.. If only a child would try harder… if only they would work smarter they would succeed in my class. But what if it was beyond trying and working… What if it was about the environment, the approach, and the attitudes that were encouraged? 

When they were in the 9th grade, Jessica and Sam were put in the same section of Algebra I. It was the first period of the first day of their first year in high school. Their teacher was Mrs. Jones. She was very strict and yelled more than most teachers. The students sometimes called her Mrs. No-Nonsense.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Jones was a serious contender for a good teacher award. She knew her stuff and cared that her students should learn it. This approach made many students (more than half) work hard for her. They wanted to please her: and they were kind of scared of her too.

But Mrs. Jones could not be the best teacher for every student, even though she tried hard to get her large classes to engage with Algebra. She was a great teacher for students who were already engaged in math, but she was not a good motivator for those who were already scared or turned off.

We have already talked about how schools set some students up some students to do well in math. Sam was one of these kids almost from the get-go, but not Jessica. She thought that math teachers were mean, and Mrs. Jones was clearly that sort of math teacher.

“I’m not scared of Jones! No way. She can keep her useless and boring Algebra. I have better things to do,” Jessica told Sam. Actually, by the time she was in the 9th grade, Jessica did have better things to do—things that she was good at and made sense to her.

This is the attitude that Sam found immediately interesting. He’d never seen anything quite like it—certainly not in his family! Jessica, he thought, was observant and smart and kind of brave. She knew what she wanted, and did it.

But that’s where they left it in 9th grade. They didn’t take any math together again: ever. Jessica earned a C in Algebra by trying just to read the textbook and take tests. “What might she have done if she tried harder or worked smarter?” Sam wondered. “It’s her choice, I guess,” he concluded.”

It might be a wonder that they got together afterward, but Sam had learned something very important that Mrs. Jones hadn’t meant for him to learn: smart and brave people can do badly in math class. “It should be different,” he thought.

Take Notes

Why did Mrs. Jones treat some students as math losers and others as math winners?

Mrs. Jones is probably like some of the math teachers we’ve seen or heard of— math teachers who don’t much appreciate students for whom math is stilla struggle when they get to high school.

Why do you think some math teachers seem to prefer to work with math winners and to be less interested in working with math losers?

Is it fair for our school to create math losers?

What kind of math teaching would keep schools from creating math losers?

 

The more highly teachers value struggle and feel in control of the learning experience, the more they will enjoy teaching mathematics and embrace student struggle in the future.  

Module: Helping Students Do Math

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