Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How We're Smart in Math

Last week we did one of the best activities I've ever heard of in a math class. We gave all the students a bright yellow paper to stick in the front of their math binders that lists 26 different abilities that are involved in doing math--one for each letter of the alphabet, from Analyzing to Zipping through mental calculations. Then each student selected one of the abilities (or anything else they thought of and wrote out the sentence "I'm good at ____."

It broke my heart to see how many just sat there staring at their blank paper. We're taught to value modesty, so it's already difficult to praise yourself in any situation. And it's even more difficult when you don't think you have any skills. As we encouraged them, so many told us, "I'm not good at any of these things."

Finally everyone wrote something down, and that's when we really pushed them. They all had to put their names on their papers and then come up to the board one by one, read their statements, and tape their papers to the board. We did it "popcorn" style, so they just went at random until everyone had gone. Of course, they all freaked out. Can you imagine getting up in front of a group of people you'd only known for a week--and who you'd be working with for at least a year--and telling them what you're good at? Can you imagine doing it as an awkward 14 year old?

But they all did it, and it was beautiful. I loved it as we got down to the last few students and the rest encouraged them. I loved seeing how many different things people felt they were good at. I loved the kids who put multiple strengths. I loved the ones who came up with strengths not on the list we gave out. I loved seeing the kids who were speaking in front of the class for the first time, and that their first words were about how they're good at math.

Now we have all their papers taped up on a poster titled "We're SMART at math because..." Looking at the poster actually calms me down when a kid is driving me crazy. It reminds me that as obnoxious/lazy/disruptive/rude as s/he is at the moment, in the end s/he does care. How to get them to express that care in a productive way is, of course, what I'm still trying to figure out. But at least I can approach it by building on the math strengths I already know they have.


Jen said...

What a fabulous activity. And I bet they'll remember it. And THIS is how you grab kids for your subject. Cool.

Teana said...

that's a great activity. i could have used that myself when i was in school. they'll definitely be more open to learning now that they know they're good at something math-related