First Week in Math Class: Don't use numbers

on Saturday, August 16, 2014
August makes me antsy. I feel like all teachers get nervous-excited for the start of school, and August makes me think of that! It is close, but not close. The start of school is far enough away to not feel burdened, but close enough to know it's time to get work done! I remember Meg Ryan's character from You've Got Mail talking about bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils - and I quite like that idea.

Going into my fourth year of teaching, I no longer feel like my summer prep is only focused on creating lesson plans and worksheets. I am thinking more about how I want the whole year to play out, and how to set my class up for success in the first week. 

During student teaching, my cooperating teacher told me about the "don't smile until Christmas" rule that many teachers abide by. If you've never heard of it before, the idea is to keep firm rules and guidelines in your class during the first months so that students are aware of the expectations, and then by second semester they should be able to follow them without thinking.
Textbook used for AMA
In a graduate course I took this summer (Educ 531), we explored the idea of community, culture, and collaboration within a school or classroom context. As a result, I questioned the no-smiling rule and wanted to find a different way to start the year with my students. One that would encourage students to follow the rules or guidelines for the class because they felt as if they were part of something, not out of fear. 


So I came up with this for my Advanced Math Applications class. This class is special because it is for only seniors who want to take a 4th year of math (we only require 3 for graduation requirements) but do not want to take an A.P. math course. They are likely interested in math, but do not see themselves as an A.P. student. 
On the first day, I will have some sort of homemade goodie for them that they can grab on their way in. Have you ever noticed how food brings people together? If you think about great conversations or fun experiences you've had, I bet you that food was involved. Not only that, but I want to catch my students off guard. I want them to wonder what I'm up to. I want them to think it's a little weird, but not necessarily bad... 


When class starts, we won't sit at our desks. We'll gather our chairs into a circle so that we can see everyone. I have an introductory powerpoint that tells students about me, my background, what I like to do for fun, and what I did during the summer. I've heard from students that they like knowing that at the beginning of the year because they often don't get to hear about that kind of stuff - especially in a math class. Once I'm done introducing myself, I will have all of my students go around and introduce themselves. Not with the same fluffy stuff they usually answer (what's your name, favorite food, favorite activity), but some more interesting questions - Why did you sign up for the course? What are your plans after graduation? What are your aspirations? (This year... life... ?) This will likely take us the entire first day and potentially into the second. 
Whenever we finish, we'll start on the Why Study Math activity that I've used the past few years. I'm pretty passionate about avoiding the syllabus for at least the first week, and this activity gets students working in groups, using their laptops, and sharing in front of the whole class. Additionally, I just facilitate the process. The students are talking most of these three days which is useful for building up trust between students so that they will hopefully talk to each other once they start working on actual math problems. After about 3 class periods, this activity comes to a close and I'll review the syllabus. 

My syllabus for the Advanced Math Applications class spells out some of what I want to do. Being an elective, I have a little freedom. I decided that with this class I am going to be a little adventurous and try to implement some of the things I learned and believe in. 

The goals listed are:
1.     Convey the power of mathematics by showing a wide variety of problems that can be modeled and solved using math. 
2.  Apply mathematical knowledge to daily life experiences.
3.  Understand how certain parts of our world work.
4.  Learn how to think mathematically.
5.  Work collaboratively, helping each other learn and succeed.
6. Connect to the community through speakers, trips, and working with an elementary class.
7. Perseverance through difficulties.
8. See God’s hand in the world, including mathematics.

On my syllabus I do not mention anything about rules of the class, do's/do not's, punishments, or behavior requirements. We will end the syllabus by reading Romans 12 from the New Living Translation. As a class, we'll use this passage of scripture to come up with guidelines on how to act - like a contract of sorts. Linking expectations to scripture instead of to what I want, and realizing it is about community will hopefully set my classroom up for success. 

Long story short, don't use numbers during the first week of math class. Shake it up. Live on the edge. Throw your students off a little bit. Make them wonder what you're up to. If nothing else, it will help them understand a little bit that you care about them more than getting through the material.

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