Thursday, April 9, 2009

Enriching Tears

Yesterday I stopped in to see how my tutors were doing at a school where I am helping start up an after school math enrichment tutoring program. This is all part of my sabbatical, helping other schools get math enrichment going in their schools. The tutors in this school were teaching 4th graders algegra, how to solve for a variable. Tutors are learning how to teach; tutees are learning algebra. There was a lot of learning going on. One minute a very sensitive 4th grade student was standing at the board with a tutor, working through a difficlut algebra problem. The next minute the student excused himself to go to the bathroom. Just prior to that he had admonished two boys in the front row, "Stop laughing!" he snaped at his classmates with a tense voice. Now, to everybody else, it looked like this boy just needed to make a quick visit to the bathroom but I suspected otherwise. I tracked him down in the bathroom....he was in tears. Last week in my group of after school math enrichment students (grades 1-5) a 1st grader burst into tears for unknown reasons so I gave her a long hug and on we moved. I later received an e-mail from her mom. This little girl was upset because she thought she should know how to multiply. The 4th and 5th graders can, why can't I, she cried to her mother.

It has been insightful for me to work with my highly capable math students. They have a whole different psychology going on. All of these kids have sat in their math classes, bored much of the time. The repeated practice needed by most, is wasted time for them. Consequently,they have learned that things come easy. What they haven't learned, at least during their math classes is how to persist when working on a difficult problem and how it feels when you don't understand something right away and what to do when you feel like that. One of the principals I work with related a really interesting study to me as we discussed the 4th grader who ran out of the room. While in graduate school, she recalled running across a study comparing mathematics learning and type of math teacher. One group of students was taught math by your typcial mathematics professor. The other group learned math from a psychologist. The group who learned the most math, interestingly, were taught by the psychologist. Turns out, he encouraged students to move beyond what was comfortable, think originally, persist when a problem was difficult and to enjoy working through a challenging problem. As a psychologist by training (I am both a psychologist and special educator), I am also focusing on helping students hang in there when a math problem is difficult. My thinking, and I was unprepared for this but happy by it, my thinking is that along with learning advanced mathematical techniques in our AMPed program, students will also learn how to think, persist in their thinking and develop a love for the challenge of difficult math problems. Take on the challenge, be confident, take risks and let yourself be wrong.... Good things to learn for math and for life!

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