Why We Don’t Need to be So Scared of Math

Believe it or not, math anxiety is a scientifically proven thing.

For some people, when they see or hear about a math problem, their first instinct is to freeze up and turn away. The idea of math creates feelings of angst, and while we can never be sure why, it’s most likely because of experiences rooted within schooling that cause this.

Math seems like it would a subject with absolute answers, and to a certain degree, it’s important that we help children learn to find plausible answers that use logic; however, this does not mean that we have to teach with an absolutist mentality. When we do, it’s exactly the opposite of an empowering experience. It’s limiting, confining, and conducive to making children believe that math is a foreign language, one which they will never have any potential to understand. By approaching math through inquiry, however, we give our kids a much greater chance of relieving their anxiety around math and empowering them to be problem-solvers and critical-thinkers.

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The wall started with simply an image of the blocks. As the kids spoke, I recorded their thoughts on the wall.

Check out this series of mini-lessons I did with my students last week. I decided to switch to 15-minute shared math mini-lessons in order to help create a common experience for a group of thirteen students spanning four grade levels and various interests, one that I could easily use as the foundation for multiple proficiencies within one general skill area, but one that would still allow all students to observe, question, and think at a level commensurate with their respective skill sets.  In fact, the objective, in my opinion, has little to do with actually mastering mathematical concepts, and more to do with the art of curiosity.

We used Project Zero’s See… Think… Wonder… protocol to help the children construct meaning on their own. I started by having them simply look and tell me what they see.

“I see blocks,” one said.

“I see 10,” another replied.

“It’s getting bigger,” a third retorted.

We went through this process of seeing, thinking, and wondering. I put up all ideas, even ones that struck me as inaccurate in an effort to have something to which we could compare our thinking and learning later in the week.

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When we finished the week, we had an entire wall of thoughts and questions, accompanied by post-it notes and even some other images!

“I’m not going to tell you what I think,” I told them. “You’re going to have to figure it out for yourselves as the week goes.”

It was in this moment that a startling conclusion came hurtling into my mind–one that I always had a hunch about but could never really prove. Children don’t always need to be touching and feeling to interact; interaction itself doesn’t need to be hands-on to be valuable. Interaction implies a conversation, and whether that conversation happens with tangible media, other people, or ourselves, the bottom line is that it’s of utmost important that our children interact with what they learn and that we facilitate that interaction.  We need to facilitate this interaction so they are able to observe, question, and think in a risk-free manner.

These media–the media with which we interact on a daily basis–define our experiences and shape the knowledge that we construct. By facilitating this interaction, we facilitate learning.  We cannot facilitate learning when students are afraid to take risks, and we especially cannot foster a strong conceptual knowledge of math when anxiety presents its ugly face. Instead, the best way to face these fears is by watching them, thinking about them, and questioning them intently.

I think if this was done that way from the beginning, people would be a lot less scared of math.

Object Permanence

Mist and fog shroud the bay,
Muddling the image of the bay city’s silhouette.
I can see neither its presence nor its arms wrap around me,
But I somehow don’t feel lost;
I don’t feel foundationless.

Its brightness paints no images on my retinas;
Its smile stains no part of my periphery.
But I sense its safety;
I feel it surrounding me–

Even though I cannot see.


Seeing the Invisible: The Power of Perspective in Student Success

My grandma changed my life, and I don’t think she ever knew it.

She passed away almost 5 years ago now, and before she passed away, I don’t even think I knew how strong her impact would be.  I wrote about this quite some time ago, but it’s taking on new meaning as I delve further into my adulthood; I question the nuances of motivation, the origin of interest, and the true meaning of success.

When I was in college, I used to correspond with “Grandma France” via e-mail here and there.  She loved going online, and we’d find that most of our conversations would transpire over the occasional e-mail, where I’d update her on my life, and she’d respond with more questions.  Every so often, we catch each other on the phone, but in hindsight, I’m grateful for our written correspondences more so than our phone calls.  And why is that?

Because she helped me realize something about myself.  She helped me see something in myself that I wasn’t able to see before.

You’re quite a writer, the e-mail said. You should write more!

I remember stopping and reading her words.  Me? A writer? I thought.  I had always felt simply like I was talking with my hands.  I never saw the value in my own writing, and I never really felt successful as a writer either.  As such, it wasn’t a preferred activity; it wasn’t something I would choose to do.  It wasn’t something I deemed an “interest” of mine.

To me, it is critical that we find things that students are interested in.  In order for our children to feel seen, valued, and heard, we need to channel their interests.  But I believe that student interest is not where learning begins.  If we look at the root of student interest, it is likely that it is grounded in the student’s definition of success–not in the topic itself.  More often than not, a student’s interest is validating to them; it makes them feel good, because they believe that they’re “good” at it and they believe they “know a lot” about it.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 9.25.45 AMIt makes them feel… successful. 

It comes as no wonder then, that our students that struggle the most are the ones that don’t feel successful.  They withdraw from school and often say they don’t have any interests, not because they’re trying to be difficult; rather, they say this because there are few places in which they feel successful.

I had one student back in Chicago who used to claim that she hated to read.  She’d say the words would “float away from her” as she’d read, and that she preferred to read graphic novels only.  She was also very specific about the types of books she’d read.  She gave me specific plots and character types.  Obviously, these experiences with these types of books made her feel successful.  It was more than just an interest.

One day, I pulled her for a reading group with some other students.  The other students had different needs than she, but also different strengths.  This student, in particular, had a strength in conversing and thinking deeply, something that the other students didn’t have.

“I need you to be a role model today,” I said.  “I want you to be a part of this group because I need your thinking.  Sound good?”

She nodded, still a little wary, as reading was a non-preferred activity.  I pulled out copies of the text, highlighters, and some pencils.  This student also told me she liked to highlight.  It made her feel good when she was able to mark up a story.  We began reading, and I modeled some strategies, showed some pieces of the text I deemed important, and then sent them on their literate ways.  I’d listen to each of them read independently, asking probing questions along the way.

“I think she might be trying to teach the tiger a lesson,” my reluctant reader said to me.

We were reading a folktale about a tiger who had stolen from an old woman.  The old woman then set up a series of tricks to teach the tiger a lesson about stealing.

“Everybody stop!” I exclaimed. “[Jess] has a great thought!”

She shared with the other two students, who then went back into the text to discuss their thoughts, catapulting us into the momentum of the small-group reading lesson.  They continued to read closely and highlight pieces of text that helped support this idea of a lesson in a story.  Our time suddenly seemed to go by rapidly, the inertia of the lesson encountering little friction.

“Alright, I think we need to stop for today,” I said.  “It’s almost 2:00.”

“Can I keep reading it on my own?” my reluctant reader asked.

My eyes widened.  Without thinking, I said, “Really?”

“Yea,” she said back coolly, pretending it wasn’t that big of a deal.

“Sure thing,” I replied, trying to calm my excitement and mimic the “coolness” of my student.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 9.27.06 AMI asked myself why she was suddenly so interested, and I wondered why she was miraculously so engaged when she wasn’t 30 minutes prior.  The text I had pulled that day had none of the prerequisites she had listed in her interests.  It wasn’t even a story that had a character similar to her.  Sure, it was a good story, an engaging text, and it aligned with previous lessons, but if learning hinged on interest, what was getting her interested?

In that lesson–in that moment–she was interested because she was feeling successful.  She noticed that she had something to contribute to her own reading experience, which was paramount to a sustained interest–to subsequent independent, self-directed practice.  Suddenly, something in which she previously had little interest became an interest to her… and not because she provoked it in herself.

But because she felt successful doing it.

If my Grandma France had never told me I was a good writer, who knows if I would have ever started to write, who knows if I would have learned to love to teach writing so much, and who knows if I would have ever developed an “interest” in it.  In that moment, with those few words in a seemingly routine e-mail, she made me feel successful, and she made me and my written words feel valued.

While student interest is important, I believe that, at the core of what we do as educators, seeing the potential in children and helping them find success in all they do is even more important.  This is why a student-centered education is so important, and this is why meeting children where they are and building them from there is far more effective than pushing them to unrealistic benchmarks.

I’m grateful for my grandma everyday because she helped me to see something in myself that was not visible to me. The power of her perspective, in hindsight, is humbling.  I couldn’t get by simply driving my own experience; I needed someone else’s perspective to help validate, motivate, and drive me into a sustained interest.

And this is exactly what our students need.  They need someone value the parts of themselves they don’t yet know how to value, and they need someone to nurture the malnourished. They need someone to see the the parts that are currently invisible to them.

They need us to believe in them.

Balancing Freedom with Intention: Creating Vulnerable Writers

The idea of language has always been fascinating to me.  The mere thought that an amalgamation of lines and curves can form meaning automatically is mind boggling.  Even right now, as I type these words, they come from abstract thought, an image in my mind that is a mixture of visuals and feelings, somehow translated into the words that you are reading. Right. Now.

The magical thing about it all is that kids have those thoughts, too.  They just don’t always express them.

In my opinion, these thoughts and these words get tied up somewhere–somewhere between a lack of understanding and an abundance insecurity.  Too often, writing practices confine children, leaving them to feel constantly criticized and utterly powerless, but a lack of any structure at all can be just as limiting.  In order for children to become better writers, balancing freedom with intention is of utmost importance.  It allows for a critical and purposeful process, meanwhile allowing students to take risks and internalize the beautiful freedom that comes from being vulnerable with their thoughts.

“It takes a lot of…” I stopped. “Hold on, I’m going to write this word down.”

My hands started with V and slowly leaked out the remaining 12 letters to spell vulnerability.

“Does anyone know what this means?” I asked.

“Yea!  It’s like in my video game when a town is really vulnerable, it means it can get DESTROYED really easily.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 6.21.04 PMNot exactly what I had in mind.

“Totally,” I replied, “but there are other ways to think about vulnerability.  It can be a good thing, too.  When sharing our writing, and when giving feedback, we need to be really vulnerable with our thoughts. It will make us better writers.”

“Yea, it can be kind of scary sometimes to share writing,” another student confided in the class.

“It certainly can,” I replied, “but if we remember that we’re all trying to help, we can make our writing even better.”

The conversation turned to our conference form, where the students were able to see just the manner in which they will be able to give and receive feedback to each other.  While the choices in the “I see…” sections are extremely intentional and linked to Common Core Standards, the form itself is open-ended enough that it allows for a focused and positive critique of their writing, intended to help them hone their skills one step at a time, as opposed to achieving perfection after the first shot.

“Using this form means that both people have to be vulnerable,” I continued. “The writer has to share his or her thinking, and the reader has to give some honest and positive feedback to help make the writing even better.”

We practiced with my story, and they were able to give it a try.  Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 6.26.09 PM

Well, they don’t quite know the difference between “word choice” and “grammar,” but at least they know how to give some honest and actionable feedback!  

Try, Try Again: Digging for Gold

“Alright, everyone, stand up!” I said.  “You have your shovel in hand?”

Thank God they play along.  If they didn’t, I’d sure look like an idiot.

“Stick your shovel in the ground,” I told them, and they continued to oblige.  “What did you get?”

“Some dirt!” they replied.

“You bet!  Keep going!”

And so we continued, pretending to dig out our imaginary dirt and clay for the entirety of the next thirty seconds until we reached the proverbial gold at the end of our journey downward into the dirt.

And this “gold” that we found… This “gold” is a good idea.

Writing is so difficult for kids because it’s so final.  It’s hard to put your pencil to paper, see something you dislike, and continue writing down more that you’re certain will be just as bad.  However, helping kids see that this finality–this writing that we dislike–as an opportunity as opposed to a failure, we can change the way they see writing.  Instead of feeling defeated by their mistakes, they can feel empowered.  Instead of seeing a bad idea as a deficit, they can see it as freed up space in their minds.

More so than being final, writing is one of the most vulnerable acts a human can make.  To take private thoughts that fill our minds and make them tangible through written word takes a lot of courage, and for students, this courage is in short supply.  They’re used to having their every piece of writing nit-picked and torn apart, and because of this, it comes as no surprise that most are afraid to put anything down on paper at all.  As these thoughts compile in their minds, unable to be released through their fingertips, into their pens, and onto paper, they bottleneck, making it next to impossible to get anything out.

513oKjQI2XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But it isn’t as simple as just cheering them on.  It isn’t as easy as just telling them, “you can do it.”

If that was enough, writing would be one of the easiest subjects to teach.  Instead, it’s one of the hardest, and what’s critical to releasing this bottleneck of ideas is preparing them for the idea that they are not going to like a lot of their ideas.  It’s telling them that they are going to put “bad ideas” down on paper and that those are the ideas that we want–not because they’ll use them, but because once they’re on paper, they’re out of their minds.

It’s like the digging through dirt metaphor.  When you dig in the ground, you “get dirty” and you “find some gross things,” but eventually, you reach what you’re looking for.  In order to make this idea even more tangible, I’ve applied Aimee Bucnker’s strategy “Try Ten,” which is precisely what I did today in class during writing.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 8.17.32 PMI began by reading aloud my most recent story, “Steve and the Sharing Showdown,” asking for their feedback.  I asked them to find a sentence that could use some sprucing up–one that they thought could be “even better,” and they followed suit.  They found one (I made sure to tell them that I took no offense.  In fact, I told them I appreciated their feedback.), and we used the “Try Ten” strategy to make my writing even better.

Here’s how “Try Ten” works:

(1) Find a sentence in your writing that you’re not crazy about.

(2) Rewrite the sentence on a separate sheet of your notebook.

(3) Then rewrite the sentence ten times, changing a piece of the sentence each time.

I modeled this process today first, with their help, of course.  While I was writing, they were taking turns shouting out ideas.  Check out some of the ideas they had below.  Yes, we only “tried seven,” but trying some is better than trying nothing.  At least that’s what I believe.

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But the most miraculous part of it all was what came at the end of this shared lesson.  I turned them loose to work on their own “Try Ten,” and within minutes, each and every one of our students had their notebooks out, using the strategy with little assistance from us.  Does this mean it was easy?  No, that’s not what it means.  What it meant was that our students felt supported and safe taking risks with their writing.

It meant that they felt empowered by their ideas–even the bad ones.

It’s important to remember that writing doesn’t have to be so scary, and it’s even more important to help our children see that.  Similar to how we want them to embrace all parts of themselves, we also need to encourage them to embrace all of the words that bubble in their minds–even the ones they don’t like.  Helping them to release these thoughts allows them to embrace the messiness that writing brings.  It helps them think critically, and it helps them find safety in uncertainty.

But most importantly, it helps them to see that each one of us has something important to say, even if its hard for us to see it at first.

Theories of Relativity

“Mr. France, did you know that time actually goes faster as you get older?”

Clearly, this child hadn’t gotten the memo that his teacher was in the midst of a existential crisis.  Regardless, I entertained the thought and was once again humbled by the capacity of a child’s mind.

“No,” I replied, “I didn’t know that. Tell me more.”

IMG_3097He continued, very dubiously referring to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and as he spoke, the complexity of this theory crumbled into simplicity.  As time progresses, and as we age, time begins to warp, kind of like a shiny hologram.  It feels faster–and not just because we’re getting older–but because one year, in relation to the duration of our whole lives, gets smaller and smaller each year we are alive.

Take, for instance, one year at the prime age of ten. That one year feels like an eternity, and why?  Because it comprises an entire ten percent of that child’s life.  But one year at 25 feels like much less.  In fact, at 25, one year has only amassed four percent of that twenty-something’s life at that point, and because of that, it passes in what feels like the snap of a finger, and eventually… the blink of an eye.

And I’ll be honest.  This twenty-something is really starting to feel it.

I remember feeling this way, too, when I was younger.  As a kid, I remember being absolutely caught up in change–change of seasons, change of months, change of years.  I found the idea that we could so suddenly and so abruptly transition from one phase to the next, with the mere passing of a moment, absolutely fascinating.  One second it was fall, and then all of a sudden, it became spring; when I’d go to bed, it would be February, but when I’d wake, it would be March.

The most puzzling part of it all, though, is that the line between two of these seemingly discernible phases is actually invisible.  It’s so fine and so thin that we can’t actually see it.  It passes in a mere instant, and when we’re on the other side of it, the previous side becomes but a memory, so visceral that it can almost be touched, but so invisible that it evades our grasp when we actually try to reach out and touch it.

And I felt that today as I left Chicago.

I got here a mere week ago, and my flight could not have seemed longer when arriving.  I felt as though we dragged through the air, the winds pushing instead of pulling me home.  But when I got there, I felt like I had the world at my feet.  A week of seeing my family, my friends, my love.  And today, as I drove to the airport, I felt us inch along in the fastest bumper to bumper traffic of which I’d ever been a part.  My heart raced and I saw that infamous line approach–the line between future and past, the line between memory and present reality.

And now, as I sit on a plane, headed back to my home in San Francisco, I look back on the week fondly, while still feeling the memories so palpably bubbling in my mind.

I attempt to reach out to touch them, but they slowly and mockingly evade my grasp.

It Feels Like Home

photo (12)The flat beauty and gorgeous grace of the Chicago grid met my eyes the other night.  I hopped on a plane in the late afternoon in San Francisco, and over the course of what seemed like four of the longest hours of my life, I slowly made my way back to the place I call “home.”

It’s interesting how we can be gone for so short a time, but forget so much of what we used to know.

At first, as I descended from the night sky into the airport, I was taken aback by just how flat the land is in the Midwest.  It was like an open and never-ending expanse; in the distance I could see lines of light that seemed to intersect somewhere far away beyond my eyes’ reach.

I got off the plane, after anxiously waiting behind rows and rows of airline patrons begrudgingly moving their way out of the carrier.  I could smell the familiar smells of Chicago–the aroma that the crispness of fall welcomes and the charming city odor that seems to stain stone surfaces all around.  It reminded me of home–of the place that grew up, the place in which I had made the vast majority of my memories thus far.

My feet seemed to be walking about half the speed my brain wanted them to, like I was in a slow-motion dream–the kind where you try to run, but your body feels held down by a force of gravity ten times its normal intensity.

In the back of my mind, though, sat San Francisco, and I thought of my new life that I’d created.  I suddenly felt huddled between these two parallel lives–these two seemingly mirrored parts of myself that were both so palpable in this moment of transition to and from both of my homes–and that no one knew entirely but me.

I reached the end of O’Hare’s long corridor, and descended down the escalator.  My heart was still racing with anticipation, as I was thrilled to be back.  I reached the bottom of the moving stairs, and before I could even look around, I saw a figure standing in the distance, leaning against one of the tall pillars, holding a small balloon, about the size of my fist, with “I love you” emblazoned across it.

With a firm hug and closed eyes, I remembered that home isn’t actually a place at all.  It’s a state of being, a state of mind, and an absolute presence.  It’s comfort.  It’s unconditional love.  It’s safety.

And we all can have that, no matter our location.