More than Algorithms

math-algorithms

If you had asked me, when I was a math student, what math was about, I would have told you it was about memorizing different procedures and formula and then figuring out how to use them in different problems. I survived math class by memorizing, or trying to, and it was terribly difficult and distressing. I was good at memorizing the steps, but couldn’t figure out how to use the steps if the question I was asked to do wasn’t exactly the same as the problem I’d been shown initially. I had no concept of why we were doing what we were doing…I just tried to stay afloat and keep up with my peers. As a result, math class was challenging, and I began to tell people, “It’s okay. I’m not a math person. I’m a science person.” And people would be like, “Well, how does that even work? How can you be a science person and not a math person?”. The truth of the matter is that, I did pretty well as a math student, in the end, with my collection of Bs and As up through my Grade 13 year, and I passed my first year university math class, even though most of the time I felt like I really had no idea what was happening.

When I became a teacher, I had no intention to teach math. I was going to be a high school science teacher and that was that. However, as the course of my career would have it, I found myself with a Grade 8 Homeroom position, and that required me to teach math. So I set about teaching math the only way I knew how– how I was taught math. And one day, as I stood in front of my students and looked at them, I knew that most of them were feeling what I had felt as a math student — the struggle to memorize procedures was real. And it had to change.

I’ve come a long way since that fateful moment those 10 years ago, and now I find myself in the surprising position of being a mathematics educator-leader. I am passionate about mathematics education, and assessment and work each day to share that passion with my students and my colleagues. I am a respected member of the leadership team and am called upon regularly to provide leadership, coaching and mentoring for teachers in my building and elsewhere. How did this happen? What changed?

What I came to realize is that mathematics is more than a collection of algorithms to memorize and use; it’s more than formulae and word problems and trains leaving stations and the cost of 60 watermelons. It’s more than strands and units and tests and quizzes. It’s something more more than all of those things. It’s beauty and art and magic and patterns and conjectures and reasoning and justifying and collaboration and communication and ideas and concepts that weave together in surprising and wonderful ways. As I realized this, I began to change the way I viewed teaching math, the way I talked about mathematics to my students, their parents, and my colleagues. My goal now each day is to engage my students in the wonder and beauty of mathematics through debate, discussion, the building of fluency and flexiblity, and tackling problems head on, even if we don’t have any idea how to begin. We argue, we debate and we question. It’s glorious. It’s exhilarating. It’s exhausting. It’s the best part of my day.

It is my intention to use this blog to document this messy, exhausting, exhilarating journey in the hopes that someone else might embark on the journey.

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Meet Jerry

win_20170102_14_49_57_proHere I am. I have been a blogger in days and years past, and it always seems to start off gangbusters, and then fade away. However, I have been convicted recently to start up my writing again, even if just for my own personal record of my learning. I teach mathematics and love every minute of it. I also teach science, which I also love, but my road to being a mathematics educator and leader has been one of personal and professional self-discovery, and so my role as a maths leader is what I really love to do each day.

Pictured above is Jerry. Jerry belongs to a student in my class who has had a profound impact on me as an educator in general, and as a mathematics educator specifically. This is the first year in my role as math leader that I have really begun to dive into the ‘meat and potatoes’ of authentic mathematics education. I spent the last several years reading and learning and sharing, and this is the first year I have had the opportunity to put my learning and passion into practice in a classroom. I reorganized my long range plans by concept, and have built my program about depth of understanding of mathematics, rather then procedural memorization of mathematics. We spend a great deal of time talking about math, and sometimes fighting about math. We tackle big problems for several days at a time. Our goal is always to get to the WHY of the mathematics.

It’s been a challenging shift for most of my students. They are in a place where they are accustomed to linear math units, focusing on procedures and steps and memorization. They are used to traditional assessment and homework. I started off by throwing those things out the window. The kids had a lot of questions; and so did their parents. And it was a battle. It still is some days. There are days where I wonder if what I’m doing is the right thing, whether or not I’m doing my students a disservice in someway. I wonder if I am leading my colleagues in the wrong direction.

So, back to Jerry. As I mentioned above, Jerry belongs to one of my students. The reason why Jerry is my starting point is because of what Jerry represents to me. His owner is a student that reminds me each day that I’m on the right track. He sincerely wants to know and understand the WHY of what we do each day, he pushes me to think about mathematics and my work as a math teacher in new ways. When I wonder if “I’m getting it right”, he reminds me that the hard work is worth it. He reminds me that we are all learners together. I am exceptionally grateful for this each day. And so I could think of no better place to start than with giving credit where credit is due.

This is why I do what I do.