It’s About Culture: Celebrate What You Value!

This is a post for the Virtual Conference on Mathematical Flavors. Although my favorite flavor of ice cream is vanilla, I don’t think it’s an apt metaphor for the “flavor of my teaching”. If I had to pick a flavor that symbolized my teaching, it would be Moose Tracks. Let me explain by unpacking the constituent parts of the Moose Tracks mixture:

Vanilla – To me the vanilla base represents my classroom culture of kindness, mutual respect, and consistency. The classroom culture undergirds everything.

Fudge – The fudge ribbon represents the challenge that I swirl throughout the course. And just like every bite of moose tracks ice cream includes a bit of fudge, there’s not a day that goes by in my class that I don’t throw something at my students that’s meant to stretch them and puzzle them.

Peanut Butter Cups – The best part of the moose tracks ice cream, to me, is when you get a peanut butter cup. The PB cups represent the discoveries made by the students. I craft my lessons so that, each discovery is wrapped in a challenge of some sort (just like the PB is inside some chocolate).

Okay, enough of the ice cream metaphor. The key questions to be answered in the “presentation” are:

How does your class move the needle on what your kids think about the doing of math, or what counts as math, or what math feels like, or who can do math?

In short, any “needle moving” that occurs in my students perceptions about the doing of math, what counts as math, what math feels like, and who can do it, is rooted in my classroom culture.

Because my classroom is based on kindness and discovery, I emphasize from day one that mistakes are okay. Reasoning, not “answer getting” is celebrated. I constantly ask my students to make conjectures, and I require them to share their reasoning. I consistently follow-up with: “What makes you say that? Why do you think that?” I try not to approve or disapprove of correct or incorrect answers myself, but let the math and the reasoning be addressed by the other students in the room.

My sincere hope is to have the students realize that: MATH IS NOT JUST A SET OF PROCEDURES, MATH IS REASONING AND PROBLEM SOLVING. 

Therefore, anyone can do math. It’s not about who’s quickest or who can memorize the stuff the best. Rather, it’s about: who can explain their reasoning clearly, who can persuade others with a compelling argument, who can persevere in solving a complex problem, who can notice a pattern, or who can recognize when certain mathematical tools can be of use. Whenever I ask my students to embark on a difficult task, I remind them of this aphorism: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

My hope is for my students to leave my class with the following impressions:

  • I felt supported and valued
  • I’m a thinker
  • Complexity doesn’t scare me
  • I’m capable of understanding
  • Reasoning is much more valuable than an “answer getting”
  • Reasoning is more fun and rewarding than mindless procedure following
  • Getting started is often the hardest part.
  • Making mistakes is okay, and it’s okay to start all over again.

That’s the flavor of my class…at least the flavor that I strive to serve up for my students. I can’t wait to break out the scoop and start serving up some math again this year!