For anyone who remembers their own math experience in grade school as a lonely struggle to understand or a seemingly endless repetition of drills without context or connection to the world, at GCDS a glimpse into Middle School math classes stands in contrast as an engaging and joyful experience. One is simultaneously struck by the happy atmosphere and the level of interest that the students have in their work. “You see them smiling. You see them lingering after class. Kids love to be in our classes. It’s not only fun, but it’s meaningful,” says Middle School math department chair Taylor Jones.
This fall, teachers have worked hard to keep the spirit and approach the same despite the challenges of COVID. An important aspect of the learning experience is the classroom environment our teachers build that enables students to be comfortable making mistakes and asking questions. “It’s the Carol Dweck mindset: you can’t do it yet. The power of that word ‘yet’ is so incredible. It creates that culture in our classrooms,” says Ms. Jones. “I want students to be okay in that moment of struggle—because that is how you learn and make progress—but I tell them that I’m not going to leave you there forever. We’re going to get through it together. Our students see their teacher as someone who will carry and push them along without creating unnecessary pressure or further disconnect from the subject.” Through discussion—as well as friendly competition—there is a strong sense of figuring it out together. The focus on conversation and the opportunity for students to work on their own whiteboards encourages every student in the class to engage in problem-solving and to feel comfortable in that moment of asking questions. Teachers regularly model this approach, too, by problem-solving alongside students and by finding connections between math class and daily life.
“When my seventh graders were learning about unit rates, we spent almost 45 minutes going over a ‘Costco problem’: should you buy this vs. this? We got all the way down to the unit cost of one tissue, which costs 2 cents,” explains Ms. Jones. “All of a sudden, they understand if they go into the grocery store and see the little orange sticker, that is the unit cost and what they should be comparing.” Seeing one concrete example of a math problem in daily life inspires students to look for other connections—and to use their imagination in math class. In algebra, for example, students analyzed graphs using the axis labels and the shape of the graphs to explain what each one depicted, such as a journey home by car.
“Our job is to help them understand the concept and for them to be able to decipher its meaning and analyze it and then interpret it. When it’s rote memorization and drill drill drill, the connection to meaning is gone—and so is the connection from concept to concept. That approach feels siloed,” says Ms. Jones. At GCDS, teachers seek to weave it all together. On homework and tests, teachers ask their students to stretch their understanding—to take something they learned in class and apply it to a problem they’ve not seen before. It’s an important step in going beyond memorization to reach understanding.
By strengthening understanding, this approach enables students to successfully build upon their previous experiences: “It’s not only the connection from unit to unit, but also at the end of this course you’re going to realize that everything you just learned in pre-algebra you’re going to use again in algebra,” notes Ms. Jones. “The Middle School is a foundation for all other math courses that you’ll take in your life here or in college—so we need to make sure it’s solid.”
At GCDS, the knowledge that these early experiences play a critical role in preparing students to be confident problem-solvers inspires an openness to new ideas and a commitment to making sure that the arc from Nursery to Grade 12 is appropriate. As part of that journey, Middle School classes help students see math as fun and meaningful, preparing them for future success by making what they learn memorable and by cultivating the mindset of “yet” so that students have the courage to fully engage with new problems until they understand.