Making Math Meaningful

Tears…shaking…feelings of defeat… pure anguish. Reading those words you may think to yourself wait, I thought this article was about math. Unfortunately those words accurately describe my math education. Good news is that I have grown to love math, but it took about 30 years to do so. I have thought about why my relationship with math has been so tumultuous over the years. Through deep reflection, understanding of my current students, and my lens as a teacher, I have realized what was missing for me all these years.

I’m not sure where this cycle of hatred toward math began, but I do remember vividly staring at a math problem on a worksheet. The math problem and I were absolute foes. Just like any relationship in life it takes time and understanding to cultivate a true bond. My kinship with math was never solidified (well not until adulthood at least) and here is why. I continued to stare at these math problems and loathe them. I would sit and think to myself “Why am I doing this…I am never going to use this in real life.” Over the years math and I would continue to dance around each other and never truly learn to dance together. We could never find understanding and meaning in each other. I would continue to be asked to complete math problems and the disconnect between math and the world around me grew bigger and bigger.

You may be thinking to yourself wow this girl is dramatic, math isn’t that bad. Or maybe you are thinking how much you can relate to these feelings. Whatever your feeling is, stop and think about your math education and how you were taught. That may, or may not have helped your relationship with math.

As a Kindergarten teacher, I focus so much on cultivating relationships between my students. They are working through navigating how to be friends and at that age there is a lot of mediating, discussions, and connections I try and make for my students. Math never had any connections to the world around me. My relationship with math never blossomed because of this. Just like a Kindergarten student would have difficulty making new friendships, I had difficulty solidifying a relationship with math.

I think back to math work problems. Johnny has 9 apples. His sister Suzie came and ate 4 apples. “Wait what!?! Suzie ate 4 apples. Wow she must have a stomach ache.” is what I thought to myself. And that, my friends, is where you lost me. There was no genuine connection of numbers to the world around me. I would continue to learn all these algebraic equations over the years but had no outside visualization or understanding of what they mean’t. Without meaning I continued to think, just how unimportant math is in my world.

Ok, now that I’ve got my math therapy session all out there in the open I want to provide ways that will help you as a teacher teach that little Valerie that is in your classroom today. Cultivate a relationship between math and the world they live in. Bring it to life through real examples of how your students can truly own math. I’m going to give you a clue…worksheets are most likely not the answer. For younger children its through hands on exploration and problem solving. For older students you could ask them to pick a career, hobby, sport or even an everyday task they may be interested in and have them present all the ways math is needed in order to be successful. They could use all the math skills taught to connect to their world. Coding is a powerful way to bridge that gap. It allows students to use their knowledge and present it their way. It will teach them so much determination, grit, and mathematical thinking. Giving children choice at any age is a catalyst to engagement. Allow your students to see the beauty of math that surrounds us everyday.

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