Two years ago, I committed myself fully to the field of education. After spending two years working in an all-boys high school, I knew that teaching was definitely where I needed to be. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I knew that summers wouldn’t be off (hello, Professional Development!), but I took the plunge and joined the Noyce Math program at Fordham University. Over the last two years, I have taken fourteen different courses at Fordham University for a total of 42 credits. I have made friends and connections that will help me to become a better teacher even after I graduate.
One of the most important things that I learned from my time at Fordham is the importance of having a student-centered classroom. This extends beyond lesson plans and into the actual management of the classroom. In Teaching with Love and Logic, Jim Fay and David Funk discuss the importance of allowing students to make their own choices for their education. Shared Control is the second key principal of Love and Logic, and it “meets a basic need we all seem to have for feeling some power and autonomy” (Fay and Funk, 1995. p 155). This idea encourages teachers to allow students to make some choices in the classroom. This ties into the idea that classroom management is about “leading students and managing the details and mechanics of the classroom” (Tomlinson, 2010. p xviii). Classroom management is not about teachers managing our students, but about leading and guiding our students to make better decisions. Our classrooms need to be places where students can safely and comfortably practice making decisions so that they can be thinkers and decision makers in the future. This is extremely important to me, because it was a huge part of my educational experience, although I didn’t realize it. My teachers and parents helped to raise me into an independent thinker, and to make my own decisions. These skills prepared me for the challenges that life brought, and are crucial for any person’s growth. I have worked to encourage my students to make their own choices this year. For the first half of the year, I had the list of “Possible Choices in the Classroom” taped to my desk (Fay and Funk, 1995. p 154). Making it easy to offer my students choices on the little things meant that there wasn’t arguing or frustration when things came up where they didn’t have a choice. This revolutionized the way my classroom functions, and takes pressure off of our relationships, which allows us to dedicate more time to learning.
Fordham also taught me that if I plan so that struggling learners can achieve mastery, then it will be easier for everyone to achieve mastery. In Leading and Managing A Differentiated Classroom, Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote that “The classroom can’t work for anybody until it works for everybody!” (Tomlinson, 2010. p xvii). This is what teaching is all about: making the classroom work for all of our students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, learning abilities, language, age, gender, etc. As teachers, we need to strive to reach our students regardless of where they are. Math is one of the areas that can be more challenging to reach all students. This is because we will often hear people say “I don’t do math” or “I don’t like math,” which is more common than hearing someone say “I don’t do reading.” For some reason, American culture allows our students the misconception that it’s okay to not do math. This means that we need to strive to make math more accessible. In Building Academic Language, Jeff Zwiers writes about our students having “varying combinations of four overlapping types of capital: social, cultural, knowledge, and linguistic” (Zwiers, 2014. p 7). Knowledge and cultural capital can have a huge impact on the way our students learn math, especially when we are talking about word problems. Students can get bogged down in details of problems, which can take away from their ability to learn the math. Sometimes, something as simple as changing the sport mentioned, or the units used can make the problem more accessible to students. For example, my students do not understand lacrosse, but basketball and football are in their realm of knowledge. By rewriting a math problem about points in lacrosse to be about something they are familiar with, the math becomes immediately more accessible to them. This connects to what E. D. Hirsch wrote about with regards to cultural literacy:
The lack of wide-ranging background information among young men and women now in their twenties and thirties is an important cause of the illiteracy that large corporations are finding in their middle-level executives….My point is….that middle-level executives no longer share background knowledge is a chief cause of their inability to communicate effectively (Hirsch, 1987. Pp 9-10)
Our students do not have the same knowledge that we would have had at their age. The things that students know about in today’s society are very different because the culture has changed. We need to take this into account when we are planning and teaching.
Another way we can make math more accessible is by using graphic organizers. Students often struggle with organizing and interpreting information. In Math Graphic Organizers for Students with Disabilities, Dr. Paula Maccini and Dr. Joseph Gagnon note that “Research indicates that use of [graphic organizer]s is effective for helping both middle school and secondary students, with and without disabilities, organize and remember content area information (Gagnon and Macinni, 2005. p.18). There are plenty of ways to use these in math. Frayer models are beneficial across the subject areas and help students develop a deeper understanding of the meaning and application of words. Sequence charts are useful when students are learning the procedure for solving a math problem. We can use Venn diagrams when we teach about the different types of numbers (integers v. rational, for example). Graphic organizers keep the information organized and orderly, making it easier for students to refer back to when its time for them to study and practice.
It is also important that we set clear expectations for homework and practice. In Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners, Jane D. Hill and Kathleen M. Flynn list four generalizations from research on homework practices (Hill and Flynn, 2006. p 78-79). The first was obvious to me, essentially saying the amount of homework increases as the grade level increases. The others were a little more informative and helped me to guide the parents and students this year. Parental involvement in homework needs to be minimal, and homework is to practice and elaborate on what was learned in class. Homework needs to be the student’s opportunity to practice what we have learned, which means that parents cannot do their homework for their children. However, parents do need to be involved. They can make sure that there is space, time and resources for the student to complete the homework, and they can offer feedback or prompts on the homework if they are stuck. By explaining this to parents at the start of this school year, I saw huge improvements in the content and quality of my students math homework, and my students slowly became more comfortable with the math. Starting the year by building this relationship with the parents made life easier for all parties involved. Parents no longer felt guilty if they didn’t understand the math, students understood that completing their homework and practicing math was important, and the parents and I knew each other ahead of time.
In my first year, students were almost scared to do their homework. They were scared of doing something wrong, or being incorrect, and most parents struggle to help their students with math after third or fourth grade. By the time they get to middle school, parents are more confused than the students, especially with the changes Common Core has brought along. When I made it clear to my students that homework was for them to practice what we had worked on in class, they were more willing to complete assignments and put the effort into succeeding in my class. Feedback came during independent practice the next day, by partnering students up to practice together, and pulling a small group for reteach. The growth I saw in my students because of our clear homework guidelines made all the difference when it came time for our Benchmark Assessments and the state exams.
Another thing that was emphasized heavily was writing in the content areas. I think that giving students a chance to write with a guided prompt can elicit better understanding, especially if done as a double-entry journal (Daniels, 2007. p 85). In the first column, students would list their computations, work, or knowledge, and in the second column, they could list the explanation or their thinking, the strategies they are employing, or other thought processes. This will help the student learn to use academic language, which in turn helps them to become true mathematicians. Another idea I liked was “Admit Slips” (Daniels, 2007, p 41). Exit tickets are very common, but I had never heard of Admit Slips before Fordham. The idea is that students take a prompt or problem home and bring it to class the next day to “gain admission.” This could be a really great tool to implement when deeper thinking and elaboration is needed. Quickly sifting through the admit slips can help me adjust the lesson for the day. While I probably wouldn’t incorporate these ideas daily, I think that having at least one writing prompt per week would greatly benefit my students.
Some were immediately helpful in my profession. For other courses, it took time for me to see the benefit, and still others, I am waiting for the day that it will be helpful. I realize this might seem slightly negative, but my point is that Fordham over-prepares their teachers. In fourteen courses, I have learned so much about the world of education and how to educate, but not all of it has been applicable to my first two years in the classroom. It might take years before I get to apply the knowledge that I have accumulated in my time here, but I have that knowledge, and I know where to go for a refresher because of the programs here.
Daniels, H., Zemelman, S., & Steineke, N. (2007). Content-area writing: Every teacher’s guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Fay, J., & Funk, D. (1995). Teaching with love & logic: Taking control of the classroom. Burbank, CA: The Love and Logic Press.
Gagnon, J., & Maccini, P. (2005). Math graphic organizers for students with learning disabilities.
Hill, J. D., & Flynn, K. M. (2006). Classroom instruction that works with English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Hirsch, E. D., Kett, J. F., & Trefil, J. (1988). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. New York: Vintage Books.
Lemov, D. (2010). Teach Like a Champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tomlinson, C. A. & Imbeau, M. B. (2010). Leading and managing a differentiated classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Zwiers, J. (2014). Building academic language: Meeting common core standards across disciplines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.