A letter

Dear elementary school teachers of Saskatoon (and likely the rest of Saskatchewan)

It is brought up often that this “new math” is challenging for you. That you’re not really huge fans of the new resources. That in general, teaching math is intimidating for most of you. That, in short, you hate it and feel like you’re “doing it wrong.”

While I haven’t been teaching for 30 years, so I can’t give you a real historical overview of the general mathematical competence of ninth graders over any significant amount of time, I have been teaching long enough to be able to see a shift in how students are thinking about math.

5 years ago, my grade 9s would have been able to recite all the rules of how to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions to me. They would have applied these rules somewhat correctly, often making weird mistakes. They would have been champions of finding common denominators. They would have answered “BEDMAS” questions. But, if I would have asked these former students “Yeah, but what is a fraction?” or “Can you tell me why that’s a larger fraction?” they would have looked at me with what my co-teacher refers to as “dead fish eyes,” randomly choosing rules to spit at me until I was happy.

This year, my students panicked at our gr 9 pre-assessment. The notations of integers and order of operations just sort of zoomed right over their heads. However, even the weakest among them has a really wonderful understanding of what fractions are. They can compare them, describe them, draw them and talk about them. They say things like “well obviously that one is larger because – insert brilliance here-” and then sort of look at me like I’m the dumb one. They spontaneously break out into arguments about whether 0.999999 is actually equal to 1 or not.

Procedurally speaking, my students are weak (and I’m not really too sure what I’m going to do about it yet.) But, conceptually, they really get it. And while this throws some interesting challenges my way, I’m pretty sure it’s a win for numeracy in general.

So thanks elementary teachers, I think you’re doing it right.

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