As August rolled around, and I reported to my first teacher day of the year, I knew there was much to do in the way of creating light; a place--in mind and space--where my scholars would be able to access the tools they innately possess to persevere through this cloud of darkness, aka math, that was amplified due to interrupted instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first day or two was dedicated to meetings—welcoming us back to the grind. After hours of meetings and going over preliminaries for the year, I walked outside and let the sun guide me as it confirmed the end of my summer and the beginning of a new school year.
As I walked into my classroom, I contemplated how I am going to configure the 42 desks in front of me. Space laughed at me and wished me luck with my new class size of 40. I reflected on how this process is a great real-life example I can share with my students when they ask me, “When will we ever use math in the real world?” I was excited because this is definitely a great example of area/perimeter/volume.
I changed the configuration of my desks for the seventh time—another example I can use with my kiddos about how to persevere through stuck points. I outlined my homework board with fresh decorative tape and broke out some new borders that will highlight the loud and iconic butcher paper. I finished aestheticizing my room and still had much to do to prepare for the students’ first day. After all this work, I remembered, they won’t even notice much because every year students typically walk in blinded by their anxieties concerning math.
Navigating the Anxiety
This is only our second year back to in-person learning. I don’t know about many of you, but I was not a fan of remote instruction. I was thrilled to return to the classroom. Through my students, I learned that middle school math does not translate well in a virtual environment. While some students excelled, many of them did not. Many of my students lacked confidence in math to begin with, and fully remote learning – a complete shift to online instruction – obliterated whatever confidence they had in their mathematical problem-solving abilities. The result: They checked out, and lost months of valuable, and critical math skills.
Before the pandemic, students showed up dreading math. Post pandemic we have seen a deficit like no other. The residual effects are still revealing themselves.
Every year, I know I am going to be faced with a challenge to break this barrier kids have with math. I can bet my mortgage and life savings that I will hear many students utter the phrases, “Math is hard. I don’t get it. I’m not good at math. I hate math.” When I was a first-year teacher, this used to intimidate me, but not anymore. I have worked persistently to incorporate different strategies that help students feel more capable and confident in math.
When I was attending grad school, one of the visiting professors, Isabel Nunez, talked about a process that happens in our brains called Myelination. Myelin is the sheath that wraps itself around the axons, which is one of the communicators to our brain. Myelin increases the speed of signals transmitted to our brain.
When we have a persistent thought, whether positive or negative, myelin is the glue that holds that thought together. So, to change our thinking, we must break down the myelin that already exists and retrain our way of thinking to create new myelin.
How Do I Use This in My Classroom?
I use the first month or so of “Beat the Beats”—my version of warm-ups dedicated to constructive self-talk. I set the stage as a mind-reader and articulate the thoughts many of them have in their head: they hate math, aren’t good at math, don’t understand math because math is hard. None of them are impressed because they have shared these thoughts with me already.
I begin with an analogy of wrapping a fruit rollup around their finger. Once this illustration is in their minds, I tell them the fruit rollup is the myelin, our finger is the axon, and the act of consuming the fruit rollup is our thinking. Many of them can relate to trying to take the fruit rollup off their finger and remember how difficult it can be. I then tell them this is how negative thoughts work. While they might seem hard to break free from, it’s not impossible. I tell them we must be patient with ourselves and soon the myelin will be gone, making way for new myelin and new thoughts.
I Make My Students Talk to Themselves
I have them repeat after me, “Math is not hard. I love math. I can do math.” They all groan and tell me how this is not going to work. I tell them, to change our thinking we must interrupt our old thoughts with new thoughts and repeat our new thoughts until we create new myelin to lock them in. But by the end of the year, they are pros, and many of them feel successful and up for more math challenges.
In a podcast I recently listened to, Dr. Erin Maloney, who centers her research on math anxiety, said, “Everyone can do math. It’s the anxiety itself in many ways that can cause people to underperform.” She discusses how it’s common knowledge that people, whether themselves or someone else, experience the thought of “hating math.” She continues to discuss how we don’t hear that same sentiment toward reading.
She highlights that a way students can move through that anxiety is to create opportunities to talk about it. Talking about anything can require vulnerability, but how we get students to engage in this discussion is by building trust.
I share with my scholars what I have learned as a math student—learning anything new takes time to understand, whether that time is one second or one month. I remind them that math is a subject that builds on itself. I always have my students take a benchmark test that includes a section for them to comment on concepts where they lack confidence and would like more practice in. I then use that feedback to help inform my review and to differentiate instruction for students who might need a little extra help.
Another remedy we use in my classroom is resetting our nervous systems. I share with students the reality of being challenged and having anxiety related to math performance. I walk them through tangible examples of how to work through those moments. I use breathing as a tool. It is something I do for myself every day in the morning before my first class. I often do it before I eat my lunch, and then again at bedtime. Breathing techniques are a common practice in my classroom. When students have high anxiety, they know they can step outside to do their breathing and ground themselves.
I set up the classroom environment to be one that accepts failure. I speak of failure often and allow my students to see a perspective where failure is not a bad thing, but rather a necessary step in the process of learning.
I realize this requires students to show their vulnerability, and while it takes time, they know with me, it is embraced, and they are safe. I make sure to connect to the humans inside my classroom first and foremost.
Students want to be successful, but before that can happen, they need to recognize their innate strengths and capabilities prior to entering a classroom. They need to trust their teachers, and themselves. Once we begin to address the barriers, many students feel comfortable with trying again, and again. Shame doesn’t belong in any classroom. One moment can really change the way a student engages; therefore, all moments must be seen as precious.
What's the Big Idea?
When a new school year is upon you and you are planning your lessons and all your decorative endeavors, also plan for students’ math anxiety. Plan for ways to connect with your students and create a safe and comfortable environment. While this won't always reach every student, they will realize your intentions to help them feel at ease and safe in taking risks.
About the Author
Bianca Gentry is an educator in the California Bay Area with over 10 years of classroom experience and currently teaches middle school mathematics. She holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s in education from the University of San Francisco, and holds two single subject credentials in English and Math. Gentry retains her passion for English, writing several published works featured in magazines and other publications. When not writing or teaching math, she enjoys reading, hiking with her fur babies, and cooking with her son. She loves writing poetry while the sun descends, and the moon rises.