I just got an email from a student I taught last semester:
Then, I start to miss YOUR CLASS even more when our teacher says things like (and this is verbatim) “Oh, this is something you NEED to know” (I mean, what an incredibly degrading thing to say?!) or “Well, I think this is really obvious…it’s pretty simple…but I guess it’s worth doing anyways…” (is this really something that inspires intellectual curiosity?) or “I’ll give you warning before our next quiz” (as if quizzes/tests actually are some giant scary thing that we should dread and stress over) or (sometimes the most stupidly annoying) “Good! I think you’ve all got it!” (when, 99% of the time, he’s seen that we’ve simply plugged numbers into some equation and solved for some something something exactly the way he wanted to, so yeah. We got it. We plugged in numbers and spit them out on paper. Go us.)
I feel pretty conflicted about it. There’s pride, but also a sense that I threw another teacher under the bus. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had mentors and access to resources that have pushed me in more ways than I can really describe, but I’ve been guilty of saying all of those things at one time or another.
That said, I think she came away from my class understanding some things about what math class can look like and what those things mean for her learning.
One of my big projects this year has been thinking about a meta-curriculum for mathematics — articulating to students the why and how of learning math. I’ve put a bunch of effort into a progression that I think makes sense. I talk about why math is worth learning — because looking for patterns, making generalizations, constructing models, arguing, and solving puzzles builds our ability to reason about the world, and can be pretty fun along the way. I talk about the specific habits of mind that I hope students take from my class, adapted from the Standards for Mathematical Practice. I use a great deal of research from Make It Stick and other sources to support instructional decisions I make. I encourage students to reflect critically on the quality of the participation, and how it relates to their learning.
But I think far more important than any of those features is the fact that much of the language from various stages of my elevator speech has trickled into my everyday language in class. I talk about why math is worth learning, I tell it like it is when a topic is really just a set of puzzles that might have only a tangential connection to their lives, I connect what we do to how it helps students learn, I carefully define what it looks like to be successful in my class, and I’m transparent about what it takes to get there. I think that everyday language has made far more of a difference for my students than any other change I’ve made in my teaching.