I’m an Imposter Here

I’m shocked that I decided to start this BLOG as part of a professional development activity.  What do I have to offer?  Can I write?  I feel like an imposter!

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was growing up I was referred to as and believed myself to be a “math person”. I was also told that I was not a “language person”.  In my early education, through 6th grade when all subjects were taught by the same teacher, these labels didn’t seem to matter much.  However in junior and senior high it seemed to matter a lot, and I started to believe that I was somehow language defective. I believed that I would never be a good reader or writer, and all the standardized tests that I took seemed to support that.

In my senior year as I was applying to colleges, I found that the only teachers who really supported me applying to colleges that were “highly selective” were my math teachers.  Most other teachers tried to adjust my expectations and tried to get me to rethink my choices.  I was even told by one of my teachers that “people like you don’t go to college,” and I’d even done well in his class judging by the grade I received. Luckily, I had the support of my math teachers and my counselor as well as my family and friends. The math teachers wrote letters of recommendation for me.  A family friend helped me review my application package and personal statement, and gave me good feedback. With that help and support I was admitted to and attended one of those “highly selective” colleges.

Even though I was admitted to the college through an application process where only 1 in 10 candidates was accepted, I had my doubts that I belonged.  I’d been told many times and by a variety of people that a college like this was not the place for me.  I knew that I was a slow reader and I knew that I was not a great writer and at times it was difficult to convince myself that I belonged in college.  I doubted my ability to be able to succeed in courses that required a lot of writing, so I selected classes that didn’t require much of it.  But, even if you major in math you can’t completely avoid writing. So, I did write papers while in college.  I forced myself to do it because I was determined to someday tell that teacher he was wrong and show him my diploma.  Those papers were always returned to me with lot of comments, and I didn’t feel like I had the capability of changing my writing ability, so I didn’t put a lot of effort into doing so. What would be the point in trying to change something that I felt couldn’t be changed?

Now I’m on the other side of college life.  I’m an instructor. I participate in many conversations with my colleagues about student success. The Math department is different from other departments in that even the highest level courses in our department are filled with primarily non-majors.  They take the math courses not because of their interest in math, but because they need it to satisfy the requirement for another major, and many of the students find that they struggle with math. From time to time as instructors we wonder about our student’s motivations for taking these challenging courses or for choosing a certain academic path that requires them to take these courses that make them miserable.

In a recent email thread some of the people in my department were pondering the reason why students force themselves to struggle through these higher level math classes.  Would they really be able to be successful in the academic path they’d chosen? Would they be happy in their chosen careers?  This made me think about my own college experience.  I wondered how my non-math instructors saw me.  Was I an example of a college student who could be perceived as not having what it takes to do well in college or life, when in fact I did have that potential? So, I wrote and sent the following email (unedited for inclusion here) to the instructors on that email thread.

As, some of you know I am dyslexic.  I struggle to read.  Really struggle sometimes and it can be exacerbated by the font and the size of the text, and what else is going on while I’m trying to read.  Give me a document in a meeting at the same time as everyone else and I have a mini panic attack.  I’ll be 1/4 of the way done by the time other’s have finished. 

I can spell “cat” and most other common words.  But, in general I’m a poor speller and a terrible editor because of the dyslexia. While I’m not likely to miss that cat is spelled wrong in a document, I have been known to miss the fact that my own name is spelled wrong.  

I can read!  
I do read! 
I can write!
I do write!  

In fact, I’ve been told a few times that I am a good writer. (Thank goodness for modern word processing software, because that’s the only way I’m able to pull that off.) 

Having said all that, I’m sure that some of my instructors in college would have had trouble coming to that conclusion.  I can’t imagine the emails that might have been sent about me and the skills that I lacked to be a college student or a successful adult. However, I hope that you all find me to be a competent colleague. In fact, I’m fairly certain that you do, or I wouldn’t have the courage to write such and email.

Why did I choose to include this as a part of my BLOG?

I want this to be a story to remind us all that many of our students come to college and don’t see themselves as college students.  That might be because of the labels that were given to them as K-12 students. That might be because of the lack of academic success that they’ve had in the past. Or, it might be because they’ve been told by others that they don’t belong. Some of those students are stubborn like me and will do everything in their power to prove the Nay-sayers wrong.  But, for many others I fear that the doubt of others becomes a strong doubt of their own.  Although they have decided to give it a try, they believe that they don’t belong in college.  If they see signs that reinforce or in their eyes confirm those doubts they’ll disappear. What can we do to support these students? How does it change if they come to us needing developmental courses and are in other ways underprepared to succeed? How do we talk to these students?  How do we help them to get prepared and help them to be successful? How can we help them to see the skills and potential that they have that have gone unnoticed? How do we help them to see themselves as college students?  How do we help them to shed the labels? These are important questions to answer, because it can be hard to put in the effort it takes to succeed when you feel like an imposter.


The Voices in My Head

Pass the Torch† is a peer tutoring program, that matches students who have demonstrated success in Mathematics and English classes with students who need tutoring support. The students are matched into study teams with one tutor and one tutee that meet twice per week for tutoring sessions.  The Foothill counselor who developed the program, Dr. Jean Thomas, felt strongly that the tutors needed to be supported and advised by an instructor from the discipline.  So, since Pass the Torch began more than 20 years ago, tutor training has been an important component of the program.  I’ve had the great fortune of being able to teach the tutor training class for about half of the years that I’ve been teaching at Foothill.

The tutoring training class covers a variety of topics.  Early in the quarter we discuss professionalism, boundaries, and expectations.  This discussion helps the tutors to be able to serve in the role as a tutor and be able to clearly define the boundaries between being a tutor and being a Foothill student.  The tutors then learn about using the socratic method as a technique to help students complete a problem without doing the work for the student. This seminar-style class also covers topics related to learning styles, empathy, motivation and effective study skills.  During class discussions the tutors talk about their own experiences as students and we discuss how these topics can lead to better tutoring and increased engagement in the learning process for the tutee.  The conversations are candid and I learn a lot about the student experience at Foothill. I am certain that teaching the tutor training class has helped me to become a better instructor.

The week-9 topic of discussion for the tutor training class this quarter was about the language of responsibility and is based on material from Skip Downing’s “On Course.” I start the discussion by telling the tutors that that I’ve seen 3 different student reactions to getting a failing grade on an exam:

Reaction 1: The student gets very sad and withdrawn.  The student says things like, “I’m never going to be able to do this.” Or “I’m really not a math person.” Or “I’m not sure why I bothered studying, I’m never going to be able to pass math.” Or “I guess college isn’t for me.”

Reaction 2: The student gets very angry and blames me.  The student says things like, “This exam was nothing like the homework and that’s not fair.” or “It’s stupid to have vocabulary on the exam, this is a math class not and English class.” or “This exam was way harder than anything you showed us in class, and that’s not fair.” or “This whole class is stupid, why do I have to take math.”

Reaction 3: The student is really concerned and seeks help.  The student says things like, “I thought I studied for this exam, but maybe I focused on the wrong things, what can I do to be better prepared next time?” Or “I think I need to get some extra help, what’s the best way to do that?”

After I finish my description of the three reactions I ask the tutors which of the three students described above is likely to go on and pass the class. Unanimously the tutors think that only the third student has a good chance of being able to pass the course.  Skip Downing’s materials give names to these three reactions.  The first two are referred to as victim voices: the first is the inner critic and the second is the inner defender.  The last is called the creator voice or the inner guide. I share this language with the tutors, to give us labels to use in our follow-up discussion, We all also acknowledge that it can hard to have the third reaction, even if it is the one that will help lead to success. which starts with me asking the tutors if they have tutored students who have had reactions similar to those listed above.  We then talk about the needs of a student who is using one of the victim voices, and possible ways to help that student switch to using the creator voice.

One of the tutors in the class this quarter did some tutoring when she was in high school.  We’ll call her Mandy (not her real name). Mandy tutored a student that she describes as having had a very strong inner defender.  She tried to help the student to see that perhaps the teacher wasn’t completely to blame for the difficulties. Mandy then found that the student she was tutoring got very defensive and started to blame her as well.  Mandy wanted my help and advice on how to approach such a student.   We discussed the need to really listen to what the student says, and make sure the student feels heard and then try to get the student to take the first step in using the creator voice. Since so much depends on the particular student and situation, the discussion went in circles. In the end neither of us felt like we’d come up with a solid plan to help.  Another one of the tutors offered that a tutor might not be able to help a student with such strong feelings.  Definitely not a very satisfying conclusion.

After class I was still pondering the question of how to really reach students who use either of the victim voices.  That led to me thinking about how I hear and used to hear these voices in my own head.  I have a very loud inner critic, my inner defender is meek and my inner guide is usually ready to take on a fight.  But, it hasn’t always been that way when it comes to student.  Before participating in the “On Course” training and learning about these victim and creator voices, I used to feel that I had less agency in effecting my student’s success.  In a way I had a big inner defender when it came to students.  I couldn’t make students do their homework.  I couldn’t make students come to class.  I couldn’t make students study.  So, how much could I really increase student success? But after learning about “On Course,” more often then not, I notice that this train of thought doesn’t help me or my students and I ask myself if I can design assignments and activities differently, if I can provide different resources, or if I can reach out to my students in different ways. I still find that I occasionally have a strong inner defender, but I hope my creator voice can continue to put up a good fight.

†The Pass the Torch Program at Foothill College was started by counselor Dr. Jean Thomas, with the aide of a grant from FIPSE*.  As a counselor Dr. Thomas saw many students come through her office, some struggling and some being very success.  She had a vision of being able to match them together into teams, that would benefit both students.  The struggling students would get assistance to help them pass their course and the successful students would gain valuable experience for their resumes and transcripts.  Dr. Thomas worked tirelessly to make Pass the Torch a reality, and continued to work with the program and students until her passing in June 2005.  You can read more about Dr. Thomas at https://foothill.edu/services/torch/jthomas.php.




The Math Pool

I’ve always told my students tales from my life.  Sometimes as part of the chitchat of milling around with students before or after class, and occasionally during class if the tale seems to fit in somehow with the lesson. I’ve told students about learning to quilt and knit.  I told students about learning to be a cyclist.  In teaching my tutor training course I’ve talked about misunderstandings from my own life that illustrate the need to listen carefully and ask questions to be sure you understand the situation.

I also frequently use analogies, both to help my students to learn mathematics, but also to help my students understand what it means to study mathematics.  Many people think that math knowledge is developed in a fashion similar to learning to fly, by being sprinkled with pixie dust. That is, they believe that if they are shown how to do math, they will magically be able to do mathematics themselves.  So I try to explain that’s like expecting to learn to play the violin by watching someone play 3 days a week, or learning to draw by watching an artist make sketches, or learning to drive by riding in a car. Of course watching an experienced person do a task plays a role in helping to learn the task.  But, you won’t learn to do the task yourself until you put in a significant amount of time and effort to practice.  I’ve tried many times to get that idea across to my students.

One day the perfect incident happened in my life that led to the perfect analogy.

My youngest daughter is quite stubborn at times.  I think she might get that from me. 🙂 When she was 5 years old, and after already attending swim lessons for 2 years, she one day decided that she was done with swim lessons.  At the pool that day she literally climbed up my body to try to avoid getting in the pool.

This incident happened just a few days before my students took an exam.  The exam had mixed results.  Some students who seemed to be understanding the material in class weren’t doing homework on a regular basis and predictably didn’t do well on the exam, or not as well as they could have.

When I returned the exams to the class, I was planning to remind them that homework and practice were important. I started with having them fess-up to studying or not. I wanted them to be honest, so  I started by turning my back to the class and asked them to raise their hands if they’d studied for the exam.  Then keep their hands raised if they’d studied more than an hour. More than two hours.  Then I asked them to raise their hands if they’d done all the homework.  I then asked them to all lower their hands.  Then I turned around and asked if one of the students would summarize what they’d learned.  The student representative said that most of the class studied, but only about half had studied more than two hours and very few had done all their homework.

I started to then go into a speech about how important practice was for learning math.  Then I thought that sounded awfully similar to what I’d said to them at the beginning of the quarter.  Then I realized they’re just like my daughter, they don’t want to get in the water and swim.  So, I told them the story of my youngest daughter clinging to me and refusing to get in the water at swim lessons.  I then asked the class if she would ever learn to swim. Then someone in the back of class yelled out “Throw her in the water!”  I couldn’t have planted a better response.  “Yes she needs to get in the water,” I responded.

I then went on to tell my students that I wasn’t sure what the math pool was or what it looked like, but I was sure that they needed to get in the math pool in order to learn math. I told them that I knew that some of them came to class and didn’t get in the math pool.  I could tell because they had out a device that you can’t take in the pool.  “Our cell phones?” one of the students replied.  “Exactly!” I said.  I went on to explain that just like in learning to swim there were going to be times when they felt like they were drowning, but that if they kept on working and asked questions that eventually they would learn the tasks.

After that day many more students submitted homework regularly, and very few had their cell phones out during class.  The whole level of commitment to the class, both during class and doing outside of class work seemed to rise.  I even heard students occasionally say to another student with a phone out during group time, “hey you can’t have that in the pool.”

This particular tale seemed to work so well that I use it anytime I have a class with a significant number of students that don’t seem to be putting in the time and effort that it will take for them to be successful.  I find that it’s not just a good analogy for my students, but  good analogy for me as well.  I need to make sure that I provide a structure for my students so they’re willing to try thing out that they’re not sure about, that give them that feeling of drowning. But I also need to create a space that makes them feel safe enough to do that.  The activities need to be well designed and I need to be sure to identify the good thinking that lead to the wrong answers.

One quarter, Fall 2013, I had a exceptional Math 105 class. They were already sitting together in groups talking about math before I walked into the room. Their attendance rates and homework submission rates were the highest I’ve ever seen. That class created a math pool, even before I got a chance to tell them the story.   I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I think it started the second day of class, when a brave student went to the front of the class to do a problem.  About half way through he stopped and looked at me and said he was stuck.  I asked the rest of the class if anyone had a suggestion to help him move on. Several gave suggestions, then the class narrowed in on a strategy.  I took a step back and they finished the problem together.  About half way through the quarter, I still ended up telling this class the story of my daughter not getting in the pool, however in this case I wanted them to know how excited I was that they’d created a math pool all on their own.

Dress for success

I’ve been out in social situations having casual conversations, and if the conversation happens to lead to a discussion about jobs/careers and I mention that I teach math at a community college, frequently the conversation becomes awkward.  Those I’m conversing with confess that they were good at math until calculus/algebra/trig/geometry or they were never good at math.  They then quickly find reasons to bring the conversation to a halt. Why is it that mention of my profession leads to such an awkward ending to what had been a delightful conversation?

In the United States, there are many stereotypes about people who are good at math and few of them are complimentary or flattering. In addition to the assumption that those who excel in math are male, we’re called nerds, geeks or dorks. We are assumed to be lacking in social skills, and rarely are math majors considered to be stylish or fashionable. It is sometimes assumed that we lack basic hygiene. When I was in college I heard comments like: Why don’t those math majors/professors ever shower or wash their clothes? Do they even own shampoo? Do they know how to use deodorant?   There are even jokes dedicated to these stereotypes.

Do you know how to tell a introverted mathematician from an extroverted mathematician?

An extroverted mathematician looks at your shoes when he talks to you.

And perhaps the most damaging of all, some people also think that those of us who are “good” at math look down on other people, that we see ourselves as being much smarter and more capable intellectually.

As a math instructor, all of these stereotypes are working against me when I meet my students and try to get to know them as I attempt to help them to learn mathematics. My students enter my classes with many of these stereotypes in mind, and that’s the lens through which all their interactions with me are viewed. What’s even worse, is that many students don’t want to discover that they can excel in mathematics, because they don’t want to see themselves, or have others see them,  as attached to these unflattering characteristics.

I don’t naturally fit many of the stereotypes.  I’m female. I bathe and wash my clothes regularly. I’m not a social butterfly, but I converse easily in many social situations.  I’ve never seen myself as a great intellectual, because school was never smooth sailing for me.  I had to work at it to be successful.

But, I must admit, I’m historically not very fashion conscious.

However, like it or not, my students’ first impression of me is linked to how I look when they first meet me. I’ve come to realize that I have a very short window at the beginning of the quarter to help my students see me as a person, and not as the stereotype that they assume I will fit.

A few years ago, my older daughter wanted to dye her hair purple.  So we went out, got the dye and on a whim I added a purple streak to my hair as well.  When I had that purple streak in my hair I noticed that my students responded to me differently. They seemed to be more at ease.  They asked more questions and more of them visited me in office hours.  Could such a small change make such a big difference?

While I haven’t stuck with the hair dying and I’m unlikely to start wearing make-up, I do make an effort during the first weeks of the quarter to have an outward image that contradicts the stereotype.  I keep my nails nicely manicured and I pay attention to my clothing choices.

There is a part of me that definitely feels that this shouldn’t be necessary. I put countless hours into thinking about how to design lessons that will help them to digest the content, planning homework that will reinforce what they’ve learned in class, and assessments to determine whether or not they’ve met the course objects.   I’m not an entertainer; I’m an instructor of mathematics. The students are there to learn, and how I dress and whether or not my nails are painted doesn’t change the content that I have to deliver. However, it does seem to change their willingness to engage in  the classroom.  The reality is that without that engagement, all the other work doesn’t matter.


Words Pave the Way

I’m an abstract thinker. I sometimes think thoughts or feel feelings that I am unable to translate into elegant English, or any other language for that matter.  Sometimes I can’t even find a way to express them in inelegant English. When I was young and in middle school and high school, I believed-because it was drilled into my head-it was because I was a “not an language person”. I now realize that is just ridiculous, and furthermore, I understand how inaccurate and damaging such labels can be.

Math is a good subject of study for an abstract thinker, and that’s probably why I was drawn to it at a young age. The field is dedicated to taking complex thoughts and expressing them using letters, numbers, symbols and as few words as possible. Sometimes a single equation can represent a relationship that could take a paragraph or more to adequately explain using words.  These mathematical statements have a certain beauty and elegance.  It’s part of why I’m drawn to teaching developmental math, because I want to help others to learn to appreciate what math has to offer.

At some point during my teaching career, I started to realize that for some of my students, when they looked at equations, what they saw was the equivalent of “blah, blah, blah”.  They weren’t able to articulate the relationships that the equations represented.  They could read an equation like 3x+5=11, but it was like me reading text from a book written in German.  I’ve studied German in the past, I remember how to pronounce the words I see on the page, and I even recognize a few words, but not enough to really understand the meaning of a paragraph.  Recognizing that my students make it through their days in a world filled with numbers and most report that they do okay with numbers in real life, I wondered if learning math for some of my students was a language issue.  A matter of translation of math to English.

Let’s go back to that equation 3x+5=11. Some students can solve this by inspection or using guess and check, but are not able to solve the equation by using the additive and multiplicative properties of equality. When solving by inspection, they look at the equation and see that whatever is being added to 5 must be 6 in order to get 11. They ask themselves what number can be multiplied by 3 to give 6 and determine that x=2. This is a great mathematical thought process. However, if the students are unable to use the properties of equality, they will not be able to solve increasingly complicated equations.

In my mind, the words below are what I read when I look at the equation 3x+5=11.

I’m thinking of a number.

I multiply by three.

I add five.

The result is eleven.

What number was I thinking of?

I  found that when I changed an equation into the form of a math puzzle like this, almost all of my pre-algebra and elementary algebra students could solve it. Furthermore, when the students articulate the steps that they take in solving the puzzle, these are precisely the steps that would be used to solve the equation using the properties of equality.  Instead of asking what do I add to 5 to get 11, They start with the result 11 and undo adding 5 by subtracting 5 from 11 to get 6.  Then instead of asking what do you multiply by 3 to get 6, they undo multiplying by 3 and divide 6 by 3 to get 2.  There is something about the puzzle form that helps the students to focus on opposite operations. This is a subtle but really important distinction, that can really help students to understand the process of solving using the properties of equality.

Based on this observation I’ve changed the approach that I use in teaching, especially developmental math, to be much more language focused. I try to help my students to not just see the numbers, symbols and variables, but to understand and be able to articulate the relationships represented on the page.  I do this through emphasizing vocabulary and including vocabulary words on exams.  I also start many classes by asking students to write about the mathematics that they are learning.  For example: “What is a numerator? What is a denominator? What do they tell us?” My students are very resistant to these assignments at the beginning of the quarter, but there are always a few that “confess” at the end of the quarter, that they found these assignments to be very helpful in developing their understanding of the content.

I know that in the same way that I used to think that I was not “a language person,” that most of my students carry around the notion that they are not “math people.”  I do all that I can to convince them that learning math is about putting in effort using good strategies and do what I can to help them to develop those strategies.  However, I know it will take time for them to change their perceptions of themselves.  After all, it’s a hard shift to make and takes time. So, if my students choose to continue to see themselves as language people, that’s okay. I’ll just have to help them to learn the language of mathematics.

First impressions

Since my second day of teaching when I was in graduate school, I have loved teaching.  I enjoy being in the front of a room and describing mathematical concepts and relationships.  I find the questions that my students ask to be delightful, as  I strive not just to answer the question, but also try to understand the thinking that led to the question.

Despite that, I used to hate the first day of class for the term.  Year after year of teaching,  I dreaded standing in front of a class of 30 – 40 students running down a list of names.  Reading aloud in front of a group has always been frightening to me.  Reading through a list of unfamiliar names is just downright terrifying.  I hated that I’d mispronounce most of the names, a fact that definitely made me uncomfortable and seemed to make my students uncomfortable as well.  That horrific process of taking attendance for the first time was then following by the dry and uninspiring review of the course policies and requirements that were laid out in the syllabus.  After all of those first class sessions, I left relieved that it was over, but somewhat uninspired about the way the term had started.

First impressions are important, or at least that’s an idea that I’ve absorbed as I’ve moved through life.  However, if first impressions are important and long-lasting, I was digging a hole for myself on that first day of class.  Is this the conversation that my students had after leaving my classroom on the first day?

Nicole’s student

Hey, what’s up?

Student’s friend: 

Not much.  What about you?

Nicole’s student

I just got out of my first math class. 

Student’s friend: 

Yeah?  How did that go?

Nicole’s student:

I don’t know.  I know math isn’t super exciting, but she was so boring and she couldn’t even pronounce anyone’s name.  It’s gonna be hard to sit through those classes. 

Student’s friend: 

Wow that sounds rough.  But we all gotta suffer through those math classes.  It’s part of the experience of college. 

Sigh! Not the effect that I really wanted.  I was excited about the start of my term and I really wanted my students to feel that enthusiasm from the first day. So, after many years of teaching, I started to really change the way I do things on the first day of class, and over the course of a few years arrived at the routine that I describe below.

I now start the first day of class by introducing myself.  I’m not talking about a curriculum vitae—I’m talking about an introduction that’s a little less academic.  I tell my students how long I’ve been teaching at Foothill, a little bit about my family, and why I enjoy teaching the class in which they are enrolled.  I also tell my students about training for and riding a 200 mile bike ride.  I assure them that if I could manage such a physical feat, that they will be able to manage the intellectual feats presented to them by the class that they are taking.  I remind them that math is a skill and it’s learned though diligence and hard work. I’m also sure to tell them about all the wonderful support that I had as I trained and I encourage them to establish a similar support system for themselves, starting with getting to know some of the other students in the class.

Following my introduction, I tell my students that I’d really like to get to know them, because I can better support them in the course if I know more about them.  I apologize for not having enough time for all of the students to have the opportunity to introduce themselves to the class.  I’m sure some of them are relieved by this.  Not everyone wants to talk about themselves in front of the class.  I inform my students that instead of introducing themselves, I’d like for them each to take the time to write a letter to me.  I tell them that the letter can be about anything that they’d like for me to know, but some helpful things to include are their current academic goals, their math background, what they are concerned about, what I can do to help, and an interesting fact about themselves.

Notice I haven’t mentioned taking attendance yet.  That’s because I haven’t taken attendance yet. While the students are writing letters to me,  I go to each student and welcome them to the class and hand them a copy of the syllabus.  As each student tells me their name I find it on the roll sheet and I also check to see what they’d prefer to be called during class. I then give each student the opportunity to ask any question that they have at that time.  As I make my way around the room, and they finish writing their letters, the noise level in the room starts to rise as they engage in conversations with those nearby.  Students talking to each other on the first day of class rarely happened before I adopted this routine.

My students won’t believe this, but I’m notoriously bad at remembering names.  I rarely forget a face, but a person can introduce themselves to me and 10 seconds later the name is gone.  But, I don’t want my students to feel anonymous in my classroom, and they will if I don’t know their names. So, I also make a conscientious effort to memorize the students’ names as I go around the room.  I say each students name as I talk with them.  Saying their name as I look at their face helps me remember the name.  I then pause every 3-4 students and review the names of the students that I’ve already visited with, and typically by the end of this activity I have about half to three-quarters of the students names memorized. My goal is to remember all their names by the end of the first week. I’m very goal oriented and usually achieve my goals. 🙂

After all the names are checked off on my roll and the letters are collected, we do a math problem together.  I allow the students to work on it independently and then check in with other students around them.  I circulate around the class and find a student who was talkative when I  checked off students, who seems to be explaining the answer to other around them and has the right answer.  I ask this student to explain the answer to the class.  I then provide two or three wrong answers for the question, and challenge the class to identify the “good thinking” that led to the “wrong answers.”  It’s sometimes difficult to steer the students away from criticizing the answer, but I seem to always manage.  I close the discussion by telling the class that I know that the “wrong answers” that they will provide during the quarter will have “good thinking” behind them and we’ll call those “good wrong answers.” I encourage them to be willing to share their “good wrong answers” because we’ll all learn more if we analyze the thinking behind those answers.

I end the class by asking the students to read the syllabus and bring any questions to the next class. I might also give them an assignment to complete before coming to the next class and let them know the format for future classes.

I now look forward to the first day of class. It’s a real opportunity to get to know my students and set the stage for our learning experience for the quarter. Is this now the conversation that my students have after leaving my classroom on the first day?

Nicole’s student

Hey, what’s up?

Student’s friend: 

Not much.  What about you?

Nicole’s student

I just got out of my first math class. 

Student’s friend: 

Yeah?  How did that go?

Nicole’s student:

I don’t know, but I think it might actually be an interesting class.  The instructor seems like a really cool person, and I think she understands why students get things wrong.

Student’s friend: 

Wow, cool!

Nicole’s student:

I’m actually looking forward to taking this class now.

A girl can dream!

I used to teach math…

When I first started teaching, my focus was the math.   I carefully read what was presented in the textbook for the students and made sure that I understood the learning goals for the section. I picked out problems from the section for the students to do to practice the skills that needed to be learned. I organized the sections into a calendar to make sure that the learning pace was even throughout the quarter.  I made detailed notes about the material and followed those notes carefully during class to be sure that I covered everything that my students needed to learn. I worked hard to make sure I got the math right.

As I gained experience, I still did all of that, but it didn’t take as long.  I also found that I didn’t need to follow my notes so closely during class time, and that allowed me to focus a little less on the papers in my hands and a little more on the students. My lectures became more interactive and class time become more of a dialog.

I was teaching math!

Moreover, the feedback that I got from students and colleagues told me that I was doing a good job.

Then, about 6 years ago, while on professional development leave,  I had the opportunity to work with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching during the year that Statway and Quantway, collectively known as  the Carnegie Math Pathways, were created. The Carnegie Foundation did not set out to simply develop a new curriculum and supporting materials — research had indicated that it would take more than than that to dramatically improve student success rates in developmental mathematics classes.  Thus, Carnegie created a set of lessons and activities known as the Productive Persistence materials that help instructors equip their students with strategies and habits that support sustained engagement and effective learning.

Hey, wait a minute!  Isn’t that what I already did? What math faculty all over the country had already been doing?  Even when I first started teaching and was more focused on the math, I still spent time helping my students with the math during office hours.  I took class time to remind them about the importance of studying for exams and suggested strategies.  I collected homework each class period to help motivate them to keep up with the work.

Well, as you can imagine the Carnegie Foundation, being primarily a research institution, didn’t engage in this work without first striving to understand the problem.  I’d already known that the sequence of classes was long and that students placing into pre-algebra needed to take 3 classes before they’d get to college level math.  I’d already known that typically 30 – 40% of the students who start a developmental math class would drop or fail the class.  But I didn’t see the bigger picture.  I didn’t know that many students failed to ever enroll in the next class in the sequence.  I didn’t know that only about 1 in 15 of the students that started in pre algebra would ever get to that college level class. “Developmental Math” was were students’ aspirations went to shrivel up and die.

The Carnegie Foundation knew that many dedicated faculty members were doing amazing things in their classrooms to help students to succeed and that is why the Carnegie Foundation brought together community college instructors and leading researchers in fields such as mind set, belonging and stereotype threat to develop these materials. During those months of working with the Carnegie Productive Persistence group, I learned that students are more successful when they feel like they belong.  I learned that students are more successful when they feel like their instructors care about them. I learned why a growth mindset is so important to success.  I learned how stereotype threat can create anxiety that hinders performance. However, I would never get to use any of the materials that I helped to develop, because Foothill is a Statway college and I don’t have a statistics background and would likely never teach that course.

What I didn’t realize is that something magical happened during those months of working on the Productive Persistence strand of the Carnegie Pathways work. I had transformed. I don’t have the Productive Persistence activities to use in my classes, but the way I talk about learning math and the feedback I give to my students has been forever altered — and that is reflected in a dramatic change in my retention and success rates.  I’m not sure I can put into words what changed, or how I’m different in the classroom, but I am.  When I walk into a classroom now, I see my individual students in a way that I didn’t before my work with Carnegie.   The way I interact with them is different.  I strive to know not just their names, but a little bit about their background and story and the events that led them to my classroom.  Math is still what brings us together, but now I teach students.