Guest post via Rebecca Cater (@caterclass). Rebecca is a teacher, student, knitter, gardener, bird watcher, and science lover. She is the Coordinator of Curriculum and Innovative Learning at The Davis Academy
I LOVE teaching math. I’m honored that I teach an accelerated third grade math class. I think math is simple and fun and I believe with hard work and practice anyone can become a successful math student.
Some would describe me as a strict teacher. Kids worry before they meet me that I’m too hard. That’s ok, because I am a tough teacher. I insist upon excellent handwriting. I want students to communicate clearly. I take off full points when work is partially complete. The work is challenging as I push my students in ways they have not experienced before. Secretly, however, I’m a big softy, and I’m always willing to negotiate. Once kids meet me, they realize they don’t have to worry too much. I’m there to talk through their issues. However, every year, I have students who can’t manage their frustration. They break down and cry.
Last year was particularly difficult with one student who struggled at every turn. Her mother and I supported her throughout the year to help her manage her frustration. We helped her realize this feeling she was having, while new, was perfectly normal. She successfully finished third grade and is confident and highly successful in fourth grade.
I spent the summer reflecting on how this child experienced my class. After reading and meditating on Carol Dweck’s Mindset and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, I knew I needed to make a change. I had to explicitly present a safe, but frustrating experience. Then teach how to identify that feeling of frustration and how to manage it. I turned to Tangrams.
The first week of school I decided to SLOW DOWN. I didn’t need to dive into my curriculum right away, I needed to give my kids some resiliency. I presented a Tangrams puzzle over multiple lessons. We explored the shapes and began to solve some puzzles. With the seven Tangram pieces you can makes squares of different sizes. You can use one piece, two pieces, three pieces, all the way to seven pieces to make The Big Square. I told my class to use one piece to make a square. Easy, they hold up a square. Use two pieces. Easy-ish, use two triangles. Three pieces. Huh? What? Now the frustration began. Students started looking around to see what their peers were doing.
“Don’t peek,” I said, “try it on your own.”
You could hear the excitement in the air as students discovered the solution on their own. I checked in with the kids by asking how it felt to solve the puzzle. They loved the feeling of personal accomplishment! It didn’t take long for the students to solve the three piece square, but the four piece square was more of a challenge.
The next day we repeated the one, two, and three piece square to have immediate success. I stopped the class and asked how it felt to have success. Again, they LOVED the feeling of accomplishment. They felt happy and good about themselves. Then came the four piece square.
“Impossible,” they commented.
“You can do it,” I said, “try something else.”
The minutes that passed felt like hours. I talked while they worked. I defined the feeling of frustration and asked them to keep working, they would figure it out. Finally, a student shouted, “I got it!”
Most of the kids jumped up to see the answer but some diverted their eyes and said, “Don’t tell me, I want to do it on my own.” I covered up the answer and asked the students to continue to work on their own. The student who solved it first moved on to solve five piece puzzle. The class worked through a frustrating five minutes or so. Those that couldn’t stand the wait caved and got the answer from someone else. I asked that everyone get the answer for the four piece puzzle to see how to solve.
Then, it was time to bring the kids together to reflect on the Tangrams activity. We sat together on the carpet. I asked them how it felt to solve the puzzles on their own. Their answers varied from good to great. Students said they felt proud of themselves. Students reported feeling happy. Then I asked, “How did it feel to solve the puzzle after someone told you the answer.” One student stood out when he said, “It felt good, but not as good as solving it on my own.”
I explained that this year they would have moments where the work was easy and they would have immediate and satisfying success. There would also be moments where they felt extreme frustration, but that feeling! That frustration! THAT is learning. I wanted them to remember this feeling and use it over the course of the year.
Did that change my class? It’s January. We are in the throes of multiplication by 2-digit numbers and long division. We’ve learned order of operations and exponents. Problem solving boggles their minds. How do they handle their frustration? They come to me before and after class to ask for help, they ask me to slow down, they ask me to reteach. They share their mistakes with the class and laugh at themselves for making the same mistakes over and over.
And how’s the crying this year?