Math Anxiety, Extreme Edition

So I’m back in the classroom!  Being only half time I’m determined to put my money where my mouth is in a serious way (instead of my typical half baked variety) this year.  So we’re starting out the year with a combination of short pre-assessments & group problems to set a the tone for the rest of the year.  I’ve also stolen @jybuell’s group roles and am going to try and use them for longer/more complicated problems to try and avoid the classic situation where one kid does all the work while the rest count the ceiling tiles scenario.

So, our first real “math” problem was a slight adaptation of the garlic problem from nrich.  I chose this problem because it has a really low floor – all students can count! – and can be extended quite nicely if needed.  Being “high tech” in my school is often quite a bit of effort, so instead of using the applet I simply gave each group of 4 a bag of 100 linking cubes.  My first class needed a little bit of prompting “Who is the facilitator?  Have you read the question? Who is the process recorder? Did you write that down? that was really interesting!” but was mostly off to the races.  After about 15 mins I did check in with all the skeptics to help groups that were having trouble moving past using brute force and to stir up some controversy but that was about it.

My second class is clearly the weaker of the two.  They needed way more prompting/scaffolding to get going.  After one day I’m not sure if this is because their ELA skills are really weak as well because just understanding what the question was a real challenge for many groups.  Or maybe they just didn’t find the question as engaging.  After some heavier lifting on my end, all groups managed to at least get to the brute force part.  Everyone except one student.

This student was SHUT DOWN.  I kept revisiting their group, trying to get him on task and involved with the group.  Every time I returned to check in and ask him what was going on, I receive the same responses.  “I don’t understand” or “I can’t do math” I asked the facilitator to reexplain the question, I asked a group member to model their reasoning for a number, I asked a student to demo how they could use the cubes for him.  The student was so shut down, that he was refusing to even listen to his peers.  I won’t lie, I was starting to get really annoyed – I mean, this student was refusing to count blocks.  However, it’s only the third day so I’ve got extra teacher patience up my sleeve.  I came over and tried to get the student to work a few numbers with me.  “I CAN’T DO MATH.” I handed him 31 blocks and asked him to plant them in rows of two to see what would happen.  “I CAN’T DO MATH.” (deep teacher breath here) Just group them in twos, what happens?  Finally.  I got him to work two different numbers with me.  Semi-success.  I still don’t think he really understood what we were doing though, or why, but we had to quit because class was ending and I needed to wrap up the groups.  Now, had I paid more attention to an email received from admin, I would have done a better job at internalizing which students had flagged themselves for “modified” math and my response to this students lack of engagement/effort might have started with even more patience but hindsight and all that jazz.

I have worked with a lot of reluctant/modified/etc. math learners in the last 9 years, but I can’t say I’ve ever encountered a student so paralyzed he couldn’t count.  I was pretty much at a loss for what to do.  I did pull him aside after class and said that I understood he doesn’t like math and that he thinks he can’t do it but to just give it a shot.  Also, no more negative talking about himself.  He’s a hockey kid, so I’m working the “just keep practicing” angle.  Now I’m left wondering how I can best support this student in overcoming his total mathematical paralysis.  It’s clear he’s going to need a ton of support, but how to achieve that without calling attention to him in a way that embarrasses him?  Grade 9 is such a tough year to begin with, and I’m going to guess he’s been playing the “I’m bad at math” card as an avoidance tactic/defense mechanism for a long time now.  There are several other students who have flagged themselves as “modified” but within the groups they weren’t immediately obvious.

This certainly takes my differentiation planning to a whole other level.


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