Becoming mathematicians – together

Those who follow me on twitter might have noticed over the last few weeks that I’m engaged in some kind of project. A project to get my students thinking mathematically, working like mathematicians and thinking of themselves as mathematicians. We aren’t to the end of that, but I think it’s time for a bit of self-reflection.

Why am I doing this, where does it come from, and where might it go?

My students are all newly arrived English as an Additional Language (EAL) speakers enrolled in an English Language School for two to four terms to get their language up to speed for a mainstream school.

About two thirds of them are refugees or from refugee-like contexts, and many have significant gaps in their prior learning of mathematics. Some have had no schooling at all before they arrive with us. So shouldn’t I concentrate entirely on filling those gaps in their procedural maths? I don’t think so. My students are working in their second, third, fourth, even fifth language; a language they have only just begun to get to grips with, at least in an academic way. This means working fast is out of the question. I only have them for a couple of terms, so there is no possibility that we can fill all of those gaps in that time. And the one thing we absolutely must work on is advancing their mathematical academic English as far as possible so that they can survive and thrive when they transition to a mainstream school. I hope and pray that they will get fantastic maths teachers when they get there, but I may be the only maths and EAL teacher they ever meet. That means lessons with a lot of them talking (and some writing) about mathematics, and listening to each other doing the same.

But if they have very little English, and they come from backgrounds with very traditional prior schooling, are they going to be able to succeed at this? What I am finding so far is “yes – far more so than I imagined”. As we build the routines, and students begin to understand that different things are being valued they respond amazingly. They are giving better and better explanations, writing more interesting questions, beginning to justify and finding their own mathematical avenues to follow, seeking patterns and understanding rather than valuing only correct calculations. Engagement has increased as students see purpose in what they do and the teacher valuing more than the fast right answer to a closed question. And all that wrestling with the context or problem together, explaining and justifying, allows for the language production and listening we need.

And you know what? I think we are covering just as much content, but more depth and less breadth.

Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets and youcubed, has been a big influence here. So has the idea of MathsCraft (which I am excited about attending in November) and twitter conversations with a whole bunch of people such as @nomad_penguin and @DavidKButlerUoA, along with a dose of Dan Mayer’s “be less helpful” (dy/dan).

And the title of this post? I started with title in my head along the lines of “teaching the students to be mathematicians”, but that was too focused on me. That evolved into “[my students] becoming mathematicians”. But how can I facilitate that if I I’m not living it it. So “Becoming mathematicians – together”. One thing I don’t think we talk about enough as maths teachers is the need for us to do mathematics ourselves. Are we regularly and actively thinking mathematically? For me that’s whole range of different things: writing R code to process school data, timetabling, engaging in mathematical puzzles, writing Desmos activities that push the boundaries of what I can do in the Desmos graphing calculator and computational layer, …

The next step for me? Learning to think aloud publically as @DavidKButlerUoA models so brilliantly on twitter.

The next step for my students? I’m not quite sure. They are already taking me places I didn’t expect.

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