A few weeks ago, I went to a workshop at BU focused on productive discussions in high school math classrooms. I learned some good stuff, but most importantly, discussions have gotten stuck in my head. I now value discussion – alongside engagement, rigor, and access – as I plan and execute my lessons.
I also got my Masters at BU, and during the first month of the program – more than 3 years ago now – we had a mini-workshop on discussion in the math classroom. Discussion-oriented math was novel and thought-provoking but made almost no impact on my first 2 years of teaching.
What was the difference? The same person led both workshops, and I think we even watched some of the same video clips.
Conjecture: my teaching experience made the difference.
I finished my Masters program at BU more than two years ago. At the time, I found the coursework polarizing.
What I loved:
- PROMYS for teachers, and exploring number theory from a students perspective.
- Solving a ton of engaging, hands-on, authentically mathematical geometry problems.
- Spending 10+ hours collaboratively planning a 20 minute lesson on completing the square, and in doing so, imagining countless lesson possibilities, relearning the content in far greater depth than I had before, and finding creativity in lesson planning.
In all three cases, I was able to reflect on what mathematics is and why we value it, using my experience as a student.
What I hated:
- Being lectured. Being taught the merits of constructivism and inquiry-based learning through direct instruction is ineffective and hypocritical.
- Taking classes that talked about education in general. Yes, there are principles that bind all educators, but when and how do I figure out how to bring them to life in a high school math context?
- The inauthenticity of pretending that I’m a student during demo lessons. Teaching is NOT acting. The best teaching comes from authentic interactions.
- Discussions wherein we tried to fix classroom problems that I have never experienced. By grad school, I had experienced many classroom problems from a student perspective, but I didn’t have any idea what it felt like to be publicly disrespected by a student, to have ongoing mini-conversations while I’m talking, or to have my handouts go straight into the recycling bin. I had no idea what it felt like to have a student raise their hand and feel myself get excited only to have him/her ask to go to the bathroom.
How could I discuss classroom management, well-structured lesson planning, inquiry vs direct instruction, and student-driven discussion when I had never stood in front of a classroom? My professors couldn’t give me this experience, so they lectured, philosophized, and pretended, but in the end, it felt like being a 9th grader in a calculus class.
I wasn’t ready for these conversations during grad school, but I am now. And that’s why workshops and PD are crucial at this point in my growth as a teacher.
I don’t think I’m out of the ordinary. My fellow 2nd-3rd year math teachers are also ready to try more student-driven problem-solving and more student-to-student conversations, while experimenting with different structures, routines, and templates. It has made for a really fun (albeit unspeakably exhausting) start to the school year, and I’m fired up to see what we come up with over the next few weeks.