Projects Make Me Question My Ability

When I first discovered that there was a math blogosphere it was because I had become frustrated with my students. Specifically the condition that occurs in education where students seem to approach almost every task as if they are helpless. At first I read blogs that vented  about the frustrations of being a teacher and then progressed into finding blogs that devoted themselves to pedagogy, educational philosophy, psychology, policy, and eventually math tasks. It’s the last group that makes me feel inadequate as a teacher though.

I read about Dan Meyer’s 3 Acts, the modeling instruction of Frank Nochese, the enriching tasks like those at Emergentmath, just to name a few, but I don’t know how to develop them or even properly implement them. Every time I try to, I feel like I am unable to correctly judge when to provide instruction and when to let the students struggle. I will give that my project creation skills are sub-par, but when a student will blurt out confusion without bothering to read the introduction is that my fault? My knee jerk reaction is to say no, but maybe I have created a climate where the students have been conditioned to bypass directions, so maybe it really is my fault. I tried to leave gaps where they could productively struggle, but most of them give up quickly. Is this a lack of motivation on their part, or have I conditioned them to think that all problems either have quick simple solutions or no solutions at all?

I am good at math. But my mindset of math is so different from the students that I will lose many of them if I try to teach math how I think about math. It’s not that I lose their attention because of lack of ability, but because of lack of interest. Most of my student are either lost in math or in a survival mode in math. Basically, to most of my students, math class is simply see problem, solve problem, get grade. I am completely empathetic to their plight, I realize that in their reality the math they learn in school is useless, and I try to compromise with my students by using grades. In my reality grades hinder learning, but they are of utmost importance to my students. So I offer a sort of compromise, I get to pose some very theoretical conceptual ideas to them of which several will embrace, but I get to do this as long as they get the extrinsic credit of a grade. Right or wrong, I am content with this set up and I think most of my students are.

My previous six years this worked out fine. My classes ran under more or less the same procedure until it was time for final exams. Exams worked as a nice natural conclusion to the course. The students got what they wanted and I got what I wanted. This year though my exams occurred early, with about three weeks of school left. I was able to use the SLO as an exam score. Since my students performed well on the SLO (in regards to my job security, not necessarily their grades) I thought it would be prudent to reward them by curving the grades and using it as an exam, especially after the effort several of them displayed on a test that didn’t have to count as a grade. However, I have conditioned myself to be finished after exams, so now I want to be done. I teach upper level courses and my students will pursue many different pathways, so I can’t really teach something that will prepare them for next year in any sort of uniform manner. I could just do my normal routine, but with exams done it feels self-centered to force new material, and for my grade motivated students three weeks of grades only have a marginal impact, which will lead to many of them tuning me out.

I found my solutions in projects, those really creative math demonstrations I find on  the internet all the time. As long as I make the math “real life” or “authentic” students will engage with the material. Well, that’s what I was taught and that’s what students tell me. Usually that means they want to know how to balance a checkbook, do taxes, or pay a mortgage. What they don’t want to do is learn how to use a bell curve to make an accurate budget, they don’t want to learn how tax tables are created or the philosophical discussions behind what is a deduction, nor do they want to deal with the geometric series to figure out how the bank calculates that fixed payment. Projects seem so difficult in my class because I haven’t found a way to get my students to authentically engage with mathematics. Because their motivation has never moved beyond the extrinsic, they have never been anything other than compliant students and compliant students don’t really learn anything except obedience.

I don’t know how to motivate a student to find intrinsic value in math. I encourage. I try to discuss. I offer to be flexible with grades, pacing, rules, whatever. But no matter what I do they won’t engage. So when I see and read about amazing projects, classrooms full of excited engaged students, all I ever realize is that my students can’t do that. I know them well enough that I realize it’s not them, it’s me. Many of them are immensely talented, but choose to display that talent in settings other than the math classroom and it reminds me that all I have done is created a bunch of obedient students. It reminds me that I am a failure. Projects prove to me that I am a terrible teacher.

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