The Only Spring of Knowledge

I teach in an urban district, in a poor neighborhood where >90% of our students are on free or reduced lunch. The schools in our neighborhood have been making strides, but have regularly been on the state’s naughty list with regards to success. There are already enough discussions of why it got this way and how to fix it and who to blame on the internet, and I don’t have the time to waste on that anyway. I choose to focus on my classroom, and what I can do (or can’t do).

I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last couple months reading and taking ideas from some prominent math teacher bloggers from around the country who are true innovators in terms of content and rigor of their courses. One of the biggest revelations of getting caught up in math teacher blogging world is realizing how limited most of my students truly are. I know its oversimplifying it to say it this way, but most of my students are functionally illiterate! They could read through a passage and say most of the words correctly, but if there is a new word (particularly a math term) they struggle to sound it out. Then if I ask another student to rephrase or summarize, I first get word for word quotes. If I keep pushing, maybe that one particular kid can save everyone else from their dumbfounded silence.

They didn’t teach me this in my undergrad, but illiteracy is equally as disabling in math as it is in English, history, or any other course that typically carry the torch for reading and discussion.

When students choose not to read because they don’t understand it anyway, they become primarily auditory and visual learners. They want to hear everything or see pictures. I don’t mind catering to those needs and am doing my best. However, it leaves me as the only spring of knowledge in the room.

I have tried to adapt group work packets from some of my favorite math bloggers like this one (which I stole almost completely from Kate Nowak), only to have my classroom devolve into social hour because the students are busy waiting for me to come around and explain the questions to them and walk them through step by step, even when I have written out hints beside the questions. Many never learned to struggle through a problem and evaluate their answers based on other resources.I think this is one of the things that makes teaching so exhausting for me. I have to do everything for many of the students.

Part of this is venting, but also a call for ideas. How would you react in this situation? I know there is no magic bullet, but I want my students to realize the value of becoming more self-directed and responsible learners. How would you communicate that?

8 thoughts on “The Only Spring of Knowledge

  1. Matt, your blog is so incredible to read. I want you to know that first and foremost. As for this issue of reading and kids not being able to struggle through and figure it out on their own, I don’t have an answer. I am trying to figure this out as well. I just created a step-by-step, screen-shot packet for an assignment that my students needed to complete in the computer lab, and they struggled. I know one thing my mentor is doing this year that I may do with my students is throwing out more of the education lingo, specifically the idea of a productive-struggle. She had it as part of the bellwork or do-now the other day and then had a discussion about it. I am thinking I may do the same to help my students understand why I am waiting a bit before I come to help be a support for them. If you hear of any good ideas, please keep me posted as I would love to know. Good luck and know that you are doing a tremendous work! So glad to be a part of MTR with you. –Nikki 🙂

  2. Have you tried explicitly teaching the math terms before engaging them in your activity? Ask them to discuss with a partner their interpretation of the term as you walk around listening to them “think aloud”. This would be a great assessment opportunity for you to help them make real-world connections to your abstract material. Set your standards high, give them adequate supports, and relentlessly REFUSE to spoon-feed them. Obviously, thats what they’ve been used to. Change the game! Teach them to struggle and celebrate any small successes. If you facilitate these discussions properly, you’d find you’re actually not “the only spring of knowledge in the room”. They will even surprise themselves!

    • Agreed. I think some of the comprehension issues in your class might still from what looks like a lack of pre-reading activities.

      My students are not MUCH better off than yours, but I’ve seen better success with from my Algebra 1 up to AP Stats with reading assignments when I directed their focus.

      • Admittedly, I have not done a whole lot of pre-reading stuff. I will have to try that out. I have gotten traction with my AP Stats class to do some reading beforehand, but I think it would be very difficult in my lower math classes. Some other math teachers in our department haven’t really even assigned books because of the struggles of getting students to keep up with the books and the low probability of actually getting them to do any homework.

        Have you dealt with incentives for reading and completing homework? I don’t want to give up on getting them to be self directed by turning to various other sources of knowledge, but know I will have to have some “better reason” than because its the right thing to do.

  3. Obviously you are already three weeks in and can’t take too long to not be on grade level, but you could grab some lower level tasks, frame the process of how the lessons will look (I give you 3 minutes to practice by yourself, I expect you to be reading and trying the problem by yourself without questions – this is there to practice perseverance. [I try to talk about problem solving in future jobs a lot and how grit is really important] Then you will work with your partner for 5 minutes, then I will grab interesting work and we will talk about it). That can kind of give some framework of how it should move and allow kids to see some success when doing lower level work. EngageNY has wonderful resources that are common core based with really well mapped and scaffolded material. Hope something in there helps.

    • I know that doesn’t tackle the fact that most students read on a 3rd grade level, but with lower level tasks words are easier to work through and when you pull specific work kids can see how their classmates approached it which can help them work through the problem

    • I like the “this is to practice perseverance” line. I could try to do a better job of the framing the purpose and timeline of each piece. It’s just hard for me to plan ahead to that level when I am doing two preps on my own…

  4. ALL teachers are reading and writing teachers because ALL students need to be able to speak, read, and write fluently about EVERY content area. Does your school or district have a reading/literacy coach? There are strategies for vocabulary development. Students can summarize what they learned in their own words in a notebook. Can they identify where they lost the path?
    Do you have a seating chart or a seating plan? A plan is different from a chart because a plan is social and cognitive engineering. Do students sit face2face and side-by-side (small groups) or do they still sit in straight rows (industrial economy classroom)? What is your strategy for seating the highly motivated and the low motivation students? Some students need “company” when they are learning. They need the emotional/social support. Many students”short-circuit” if they have to go it alone.

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