Teaching Opinion

Orienting Students for Math

By John T. McCrann — September 06, 2016 3 min read
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‘Tis the season for orienting.

Around the country students and families are nervously walking into and through school buildings on “new student orientations.”

The word orientation, of course, predates this annual late summer ritual. Sailors, hikers, and other travelers have been “orienting” for millennia — using what they know to find their position in new surroundings. Setting a course at the beginning of journey towards their desired end.

What direction are we pointing students? What tools are we giving them that could help them use what they know to understand new and strange surroundings like high school?

Last week, I led a group of teachers who facilitated a two day mathematical orientation for our new students. Incoming 9th graders reported to school for two full days of their summer (the first day for NYC students is 9/8).

As we prepared, the teachers and I thought about what we could and could not do with this time.

We could not level the playing field for students coming to our school at very different numeracy levels. We could point out some common misconceptions that undermine learning in Algebra and work to correct them. We could not expect students to ignore the social aspects of starting a new school and meeting new people. We could structure interactions so that students met lots of other people at our school and knew a bit about some of their classmates and teachers before the first day of class.

Based on these conversations, we developed 4 Big Ideas which we wanted to guide the work of the two days.

1. Students and teachers respect each other and work as a team.

Students worked in collaborative problem solving groups throughout the two days. Teachers worked alongside groups as they engaged non-routine problems.

2. We want to develop effort and persistence in solving problems.

Selected problems had “low floors” and “high ceilings.” That is, there were entry points where all students could begin working, but each problem forced each student to struggle to fully develop a solution. There were times during the two days when students were engaged in self directed problem solving: playing games, learning to juggle, folding origami. After these times, students reflected on the ways they solved problems and the impact of their persistence.

3. We can and should be able to understand the mathematics we need to be successful beyond high school.

Every student also did more traditional basic Algebra. Teachers gave students feedback on their work and talked about the kinds of things they should do to be prepared for high school mathematics. We reviewed online and in-real-life resources that students could use to fill in gaps in their understanding.

We pushed students to think of each problem as one that ought to make sense and encouraged them to “make it make sense” when they were struggling. Groups of 10 - 15 students met with a STEM professional at her or his job site. We organized site visits — in part — through the wonderful organization Math 4 Science. Using their resources, students researched the STEM professionals and careers. On the visits, they discussed the usefulness of math in the work context: music/dance, sailing, cancer research, web design.

These are the 4 goals that worked to create a productive mathematical journey for our students. Like the north star, they gave us a point to aim for and an indication when we got off track.

Where is your ship pointing as you start your school year?

Photo 1 by Unsplash https://pixabay.com/en/compass-dash-direction-navigation-691146/. A compass orients a car on its journey.

Photo 2 by author. STEM Profession Yamilée Toussaint shows a group of students how to create music with an online programming tool. Click here to learn more about Yamilée and how she uses math in her work as an artist and engineer.

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