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What Does Being Smart in Math Really Mean?

smarter together This Summer I began reading Smarter Together! Collaboration and Equity in the Elementary Math Classroom, but to be honest when I bought the book I really was more interested in the collaboration part of the book than the equity part. As with most things the part of the book that I was interested in was not the part that I needed.

I have been teaching math for a very long time and I never really reflected on what it meant to be smart in math. Sure, I have taught some really bright math students, but what characteristics did they posses that deemed them “smart”?  I would have to agree with the author’s of the book that in most elementary math classes teachers like to assume that being smart in math means knowing procedures for getting the correct answers to computation problems. This is especially true for students in grades K-2 because computation tends to be the focal point of mathematics at these grade levels.
2015-12-21 07.28.37The definition of being smart never has been an issue for me until last week when I was helping one of my students with identifying tenths and hundredths using number disks. After I was finished helping her another student who doesn’t speak English well came to me and said that she didn’t understand what to do. So, I turned to the student that I had just helped and told her to explain it to the other student. Well, much to my surprise the student looked at me and said, “I’m not that good at explaining things.” I asked her who did she think was good at explaining things? She then looked around the classroom at the other students and pointed to one of the female students that was sitting at our table.Since she thought that this student was good at explaining thing, I had the student that she pointed to explain how to do the problem as we both sat there listening without interrupting.

distributive-propertyStudent hierarchy has never been a concern for me because I hadn’t really given it much thought. Through reading this book I have learned that when students assign their classmates a low status they are not  however they are the only students who learn less math because of the student hierarchy. Students who have high status tend to not take a low status students’ incorrect answers seriously. This then creates another problem because this continues the process of learning math as a list of rules rather than as human construction that engages the mind and involves reasoning, problems solving, communication and making connections.

I have to admit before the implementation of the Common Core Standards I focused primarily on teaching computation 1 way. The Common Core Standards encourages me to use different strategies to solve problems which in turn creates opportunities for more students and for other  to see them as smart in math.

I love teaching math because it’s like opening a Cracker Jack box every year when I get a new group of students. Reading Smarter Together has really made me realize that student hierarchy starts with me. The next day after the student and I had that conversation she came up to me and said, “Juan is having trouble with decimals, can I show him how to do it the way you showed me?” I was so excited because I knew right then the way that she saw herself was beginning to change so, hopefully as time goes on the other students will begin to recognize that she does need more support but can also contribute as well.

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