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Posts Tagged as "math mantras"

“Interesting,” not “complicated” (Math Mantras, part 2)

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about re-framing. Along the lines of “eraser time,” and “when in doubt, write it out,” another way I’ve found helps my students to approach a more complex problem with courage and even a sense of playfulness is saying the simple phrase, “This looks… interesting,” with a little friendly smile.

Why does this work? So many times when kids hit a problem that looks weird to them, they just stop and give up, thinking, I don’t recognize this, I don’t know how to do this, no one has taught me this yet! I will just wait, or close my book and go do something else, or hope this problem disappears! But frequently, those problems are just one little step, one small stretch, beyond what they have just done.

“This looks…interesting” opens up a space where it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to do–a place where you can explore. A zone where you can spread out and think about what might work or what you could try. It neutralizes the subconscious tendency to freak out. It’s like you’re an archeologist discovering a beautiful, mysterious artifact whose purpose is unknown. Instead of thinking, “I don’t know what to do with this crazy thing!” you can welcome the process of puzzling out how it might work.

I’ve found that if I do this enough, it’s one of those phrases that my students repeat back to me, unprompted. If we’re talking about the complicated problems as though they are “interesting” instead (even if inside, they might be saying, “this looks scary/impossible”), eventually they start doing this on their own.

And it’s not just a trick–it’s also true. Part of the process of mastery is that what was once impossible becomes familiar. And what is familiar is no longer challenging. And eventually, what is familiar becomes downright boring.

So to stay in the magic space between frustration and boredom, where the problem is perfectly matched to our abilities to stretch us just one step beyond what we already have done, we need to kick it up a notch so we don’t get bored. So we can grow. And so we can enjoy.

Related posts:
It’s eraser time! (And other math mantras)
On Optimal Challenge
How to help kids be OK with things being hard

Posts Tagged as "math mantras"

It’s eraser time! (And other math mantras)

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Apparently, there are certain things I tell my students over and over. One of them, with a twinkle in my eye and glee in my voice, is, “It’s eraser time!” (Whenever I say, “It’s eraser time!”, I think, “It’s Hammer Time!”, even though that was a hit long before most of my students were born.)

Then my student will jubilantly erase their mistake and then correct their work.

I didn’t realize how much I would say “It’s eraser time!” until my students started saying it *back* to me. Which made me ask myself–how did this become a permanent fixture of my teaching vocabulary? Why does “eraser time” work so well?

Three reasons:

1. Most importantly, “eraser time” normalizes error. It shows students that when they mess up, it doesn’t mean that THEY are messed up. Instead, making mistakes is just a normal part of the learning process.

2. “Eraser time” is fun, even at a moment when students have made a mistake. So it’s energizing, but doesn’t distract from the task at hand. It’s fun and silly but still leads them to what they need to do next — erase.

3. By being part of a special “math tutoring language” that we share, “eraser time” helps students feel like they belong. They are “in the know” because they get our special “insider lingo.” It helps create a culture of trust and camaraderie.

As usual, my students have taken eraser time and made it their own. Variations include an Eraser Race, where we both erase on the whiteboard as fast as we can. There’s also “Strategic Erasing” (careful erasing to remove what you don’t want but leave some previous work up for reference).

Another big mantra that my students started saying back to me is, “When in doubt, write it out.” I love this because instead of me nagging the student to write out the work instead of guessing, the student will happily say, “When in doubt, write it out!” and then go ahead and write out their work.

“When in doubt, write it out” works for the same reasons — it normalizes *effort* (it shows that it’s okay and normal to have to write it out and do the work); it directs them to the next step, but in a way that is fun and helps them “own” the process; and it creates a culture of fun and belonging.

Related Posts:
How to make it safe for kids to fail
The Rhyme and Reason of Making Mistakes
On optimal challenge
Self-made Heroes: the Dancers of Planet B-Boy
Five tips for a happy math year