“More About Mathematics and Less About Status”

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I have been thinking a lot about this word: agency.  I have been attending sessions at NCTM and NCSM all week.  Many speakers pushed my thinking about what it means for students to be agents of their own learning. During Cathy Humphrey’s session at NCSM, she shared a slide that described what student agency might look like.  It really resonated with me.

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This week,  I had the great privilege of presenting at the National Conference of Supervisors of Mathematics with two teachers, Deb Hatt and Carolyn Watkins, who are trying to make our district vision of math support a reality.

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This was Deb’s first year in the Math Interventionist position. She believes in our mission statement, but she wasn’t sure how to put it into action.  She and Carolyn, who teaches third grade math, didn’t start out the year collaborating.  In September, Deb was taking a group of 3rd grade students out of Carolyn’s math class to provide interventions.

Deb and Carolyn quickly realized that pulling students out of their math class was not effective or equitable.  They decided to change their approach.  Deb started joining Carolyn and her students in math class. She and Carolyn started planning together once a week. Historically, teaching has been something we have done in isolation, behind closed doors. Deb and Carolyn decided to make their teaching visible. They took a giant risk. They were vulnerable and honest.  Their collaborative journey was not predictable or neat. Like most meaningful learning experiences, it was unvarnished and gritty; full of questions, partially formed ideas, and mistakes.

At first, their planning was focussed on supporting students who needed intervention, but, over time, the line between “Deb’s students” and “Carolyn’s students” blurred.  This seemed to be working well for most students, but there was one student who needed more. Carolyn and Deb decided that Deb would work with Jayden daily, before her math block, to support her as she continued to build her understanding of multiplication and division. This is Jayden. She is working on her anchor chart of known or derived math facts.

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Even though Deb sees Jayden outside of math class, Jayden is also Carolyn’s student.  In the clips below you will see Carolyn working with a heterogeneous group of students. Jayden is one of these students. Take a minute to think about the problem these students are working on before you listen to the clips.

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As you listen to these students working, notice that their thinking is fluid as they try to make connections between the different shapes and their values.


At this point,  you might be wondering, where is Deb? She’s there. Do you see her in the background? She’s working with other students.

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After these students figured out that the triangle is worth one-third, Carolyn noticed that Jayden was thinking about the blue rhombuses.

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Carolyn said, “Oh wait a minute. Let’s take a look at what Jayden just did.” Carolyn  intentionally positioned Jayden as a significant contributor to this community of mathematicians. Both Willow and Madison built on Jayden’s thinking and figured out that the blue rhombus is worth two-thirds.

Jayden was not convinced so Carolyn conferenced with her to find out what she knew.  Too often in education, we use a deficit model to describe student understanding. When we do this, we end up drowning in our own assumptions, lowering our expectations of what students can do, and creating an inequitable learning environment that hinders student agency.  As you watch the following clip, look for evidence of what Jayden DOES know about fractions.


After Deb, Carolyn, and I watched the clip above, we talked about next steps.  We thought Jayden would be able to identify the value of the blue rhombus if she worked on it for a little bit longer. We agreed Deb would work with Jayden on this problem during her next 1-1 session with Jayden. Take a look at a clip from that session.


In the previous videos, you saw Carolyn and Deb help Jayden clarify her understanding of fractions as numbers.  They amplify her understanding of fractions by expanding her opportunities to talk about what she knows, ask questions, make connections, and revise her thinking. Deb and Carolyn held up a mirror for Jayden and she saw herself as a mathematician.

While planning for our presentation, we anticipated that participants would ask us, how do you know that collaboration is working? Janet Delmar, principal at the school where Deb and Carolyn work, said,   “The students in this classroom feel respected by their peers and teachers. They know their contributions in math class are valued and important. We are seeing evidence of their learning in their conversations with their peers and teachers. They enjoy mathematics and see themselves as mathematicians.”

As I listened to her, I wondered, would people be satisfied with this answer? I said, “What if the participants ask, but what about the data?”

Janet responded,  “If students hate math and don’t see themselves as mathematicians, then who cares about the data.  We will continue to look at the NWEA, the MEA, and our district Common Assessment tasks, but we don’t need test data to show us that collaborative teaching is good for kids.”

As I reflect on what I think I know about student agency, I’m wondering about teacher agency.  When teachers feel ownership of their own learning, they are more likely to “offer their thoughts, attend and respond to each other’s ideas, and generate shared meaning or understanding through their joint efforts”  Admittedly, as a math coach, there are times when I find myself overly focussed on what teachers aren’t doing. Sometimes, I use a deficit model of coaching. This experience has taught me the importance of cultivating teacher agency and paying attention to all the challenging but essential work that teachers are doing.

During NCTM’s Shadowcon18, Javier Garcia asked, “What will it take to make our math classes more about mathematics and less about status?” What a great question! I think it will take a concerted effort by all of us to stop using standardized test data to sort teachers and students into fixed categorical bins. It will take us emphatically committing to a strength based model of learning, teaching, and coaching.


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