Based on a Global Math Department Presentation from 9/18
I have a single goal, that within a few days of the start of school, my students are convinced that their time with me is going to be the best part of their day. I even say this on the first day of school. Although once you’re at a school long enough, you earn a reputation. In recent years I’ve appended that statement to say “this will be the best part of your day, I hope it lives up to the hype.”
At the same time, I want it to be the best part of their day for the right reasons. Yes, we are going to have some fun, but we’re going to be productive at the same time. Kids can have weird perceptions of what makes a “great” class. I’m reminded of a conversation I heard between middle school students talking about their really fun social studies class in which they did nothing and watched movies every day. That’s not the sort of thing I’m going for here.
I draw most of my inspiration from two teachers. I loved going to their classes every day. It was exciting to spend time in their room because I knew I was going to have a good time. As a teacher, I really want to have a good time as well, since I’m in the room all day after all. So if I’m having a good time, they should too.
My 6th grade math teacher, Mr. Richardson, was a legend. In my elementary school there was a buzz about him. When you got to 6th grade, you needed to have math with this guy. He had a counterpart in social studies that was equally hyped, but sadly, I didn’t get them both.
What did he do?
First and foremost he organized us into teams. These would change throughout the year. We had jobs. We had to have a logo. There was an in class economy. Each week you’d earn a salary depending on your job, and his currency could be traded for trinkets from a store. How this man kept track of 150 some odd salaries is beyond me, but we got paid every week.
He gave us interesting problems. There was a curriculum to tackle, but he went out of his way to challenge everyone in the room. We did a multi-week travel project, where we had to plan out every detail and track every expense, writing the checks and everything. He was the sneakiest direction writer I ever met. There was ALWAYS some little treat hidden in his directions. It was his way of teaching us to pay attention. I sucked at these.
Most importantly, he respected everyone in the room. It didn’t matter that we were 11. If you came up with a clever method, he’d name it after you. He was constantly grouping and regrouping us based on our needs. He would give different types of assignments to everyone. And he expected you to keep them all organized. I was horrible at keeping them organized.
My 12th grade Calculus teacher was Mrs Westerfeld. Compared to the other guy, her classroom operated a lot simpler. She’d do two things consistently, complain about George W Bush (she was from Crawford, TX where he has a ranch) and let you know she cared.
Twice a year she’d sit everyone down and read you a story. She read us the Polar Express and gave us all a little bell. At the end of the year she made the whole class write one nice thing about everyone else in the class. You’d put your name on a card and pass it around in a circle. When you received a card, you wrote your nice thing, and she’d add hers. She did this for 150 students.
But the other days of the year she got down to business. Plenty of homework and challenging tests, but you loved it.
I send several important messages to my students. I never say them out loud, I let the actions speak for themselves. The setup of my classroom is integral to this process.
There are six tables in the room. Students sit in semi-random groups throughout the year. The goal is to build an identity with their table mates. If we do a group activity, kids work with their table. If we have a contest, kids compete with their table. If it’s time for classwork, they do it with their table. If I start flirting with rearranging seats they will give me the biggest STINK EYE if I even THINK about breaking them up. They were complete strangers on day one! Are you serious? Several times a group of kids who were complete strangers at the beginning of the year have asked if they could do Secret Santa for JUST THEIR TABLE. It’s the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve had several students for multiple years, and these repeaters want their table back. Doesn’t matter that the kids are slightly different. That’s THEIR TABLE.
Why in the world would a kid care so much about a seat? Let me explain.
You Are Welcome
I greet everyone at the door and I greet them by name. I have been the quiet kid in the back of the class. I never felt like those teachers knew who I was. I’m not doing that to my kids. I want them to know I notice them. At the end of every class period I give them all a high five as they leave. I’ve been doing that since 2015 thanks to a presentation by Glenn Waddell. Since then I’ve given about 75,000 high fives and have washed my hands about 3,000 times. Seniors are legitimately depressed when it’s time for the last high five. They’re excited to steal extras at graduation.
You Can Relax
If I have to talk in front of the whole group, I treat it like a discussion. Kids can interrupt me at any point with a question. Initially they’re all very polite and will raise hands or whatever, but they figure out pretty quick that I want them to just jump in. If I ask them to think about something and prepare an answer, they’re not allowed to shout their answer. We want everyone to have time to think. If I have them make a calculation, or estimate a quantity, I write down anything I hear. I never confirm anything as right or wrong unless it seems like that’s the consensus. If the answer is 5, and one kid says 5, I’m not moving on until the group agrees. If a kid said 3, I never disparage them for saying 3. I ask them why they thought 3. Some less daring kid might also be wondering why it wasn’t 3. If I make a mistake, I announce my mistake. Sometimes I’ll explain how I make the mistake. You should never be afraid to be incorrect in front of the group, and that starts with me.
You are also welcome to ask an off topic question. Often I will acknowledge the question and deal with it later. Often I’m the one with the off topic remark. I am easily distracted.
If a kid wants to know where I went to high school, I’ll take a minute and show them. If they want to know where I live, I show them a house that could be mine. I might have a question about how the football team did. That might inspire someone in band to tell a funny story from the football game. I welcome the story. The other day kids were asking about hurricanes, so we spent some time discussing the current hurricanes and what it takes to track to us. I want them to be curious about things, and it doesn’t always have to be about the current discussion. I also want them to know that I care what they’re up to and that their stories are interesting to me. We’ll entertain the idea and go right back to our main discussion. Honestly, I think this helps absorb the day’s content better. It offers a natural opportunity for me to repeat something, and it’s given their subconscious a minute or two to process what we’re doing, even if we were talking about something random. Our curriculum is not so sacred that we can’t take a second to deviate.
You Will Be Productive
I love student work time. All the stories and distractions are great, but students know that in my room, when it’s work time, it’s work time. As much as possible I give students their class time to get their work done. This is also when I secretly get to know them the most. As they work, I wander. I’ll look over someone’s shoulder for a second, or I’ll listen to kids discussing a problem. I rarely intervene. I hop slowly from table to table. If a table needs me, they’ll stop me. The whole table will perk up and listen to the question, and I’ll move on. If I pass a table that hasn’t said much in a while, I’ll stop in to see how they’re doing. If they happen to be off topic, this is fine. 99% of the time kids are naturally back on topic within a minute or two. If they take longer, I’ll politely suggest they get back to it.
Every student has a notebook and every assignment we do is in that notebook. I started doing it a long time ago and it’s a proven winner. At the end of the year a majority of kids can’t believe how much stuff wound up in there. It’s their physical artifact that ok, yeah, I did a lot of work in here.
If a kid is really struggling, I’ll either take a seat next to them or kneel down and talk them through it. Often they’ll want to quit.
I’ll remind them that they do know what they’re doing, and that there’s something they know that will help us here. If they need to go slow, we’ll go slow. I wait patiently for them to rewrite a problem, or correct a mistake, or fiddle with the calculator. We are never in a rush. Last year I had a student who struggled with just about everything. I helped her individually all the time. But this girl was determined to keep at it. Throughout the year I’d have kids show me their classwork and this girl would BEAM when she showed me everything she did by herself. She was in 12th grade and had never felt that way in a math class before.
Sometimes I’ll jump into their conversations. Throughout the course of a school year, I develop an individual relationship with each table. If there’s six tables in the room, I’ll have six inside jokes going amongst them. I don’t care how big a class is, I want kids to know that they can have my attention whenever they need it.
We Are A Family
I was really attached to my Calculus class. There were 12 of us and I dubbed us the dirty dozen. At the end of the year our teacher let us decorate a ceiling tile. I went back to visit her and our tile was still sitting up there. This was us.
So let’s talk about Varsity Math.
I took over our Calculus program 5 years ago. Kids were fairly apathetic about the course. They heard it was difficult, so they’d try it for like 3 weeks and drop. I wanted to change that attitude. Kids were going to be excited to join an AP Math class.
Varsity Math is an initiative for AP Stats and Calculus students at my school. It has become a signature institution. Younger students ask for it by name.
We have t-shirts. We have stickers. We have sunglasses. We have snapchat filters. We have a big end of the year party. And we have a monument. We also adopted that baby shark song as our anthem. We played it at prom, twice.
The main idea here is that the 100 or so AP Math students are in this together. They are proud to be in a challenging class. Because they should be proud to be in a challenging class. Since starting this initiative, the drop rate in our AP classes plummeted. AP Exam performance has been ticking up too. And for crying out loud they had a PARADE during lunch last year. The kids are so into their math class that they want everyone else to be jealous of their math class. Kids are ECSTATIC the day I hand out the merchandise. Their time has come. They’re part of the legend.
First and foremost, I’m admittedly a little ridiculous and some of this stuff take a LOT of time. Do not feel like you have to drop everything and start your own clothing line to gets kids hyped about math. Though I hear that works for Desmos.
Even the most difficult student wants to learn something. Kids are very aware of what their classes demand of them, and they adjust appropriately. If they know English is a joke, they’ll treat it like a joke. The biggest compliment a kid can ever pay me is when they say “we really do a lot in here” or “wow class goes fast.”
If you were going to pick something to change, the biggest move you can make is to yield as much class time to students as you can. My lessons are very condensed. If they’re longer, there’s almost always a day of classwork that follows. In College Algebra last year I stopped whole group instruction entirely. Kids would come in, and I’d give them a series of structured tasks. They came to expect it. Within a few minutes of class starting even my most difficult child would ask when she could get the work for the day.
Sit down with your kids. Chit chat with your kids. It doesn’t have to be about math. They will become the hardest workers for you if they know you see them as an equal.