“We’re developing young human beings. Math is the context.” Deborah Ball made this statement to a room full of educators on the first day of the Teaching Works Elementary Mathematics Laboratory. During this annual event, Dr. Ball teaches mathematics to a class of fifth-grade students as the educators sit silently in the back of the room and observe. Many of the students chosen the two-week summer mathematics program have experienced difficulty learning mathematics in school. The student program is designed to build the students’ identities as mathematicians in addition to strengthening their critical thinking skills and foundational math understandings.
Teachers, administrators, teacher educators, and education policy makers from around the world come to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor each year to participate in this unique professional learning experience. When the students’ math class ends each morning, Dr. Ball debriefs with these educators about what they observed. I had come to the Elementary Mathematics Laboratory (EML) to deepen my understanding of instructional practices that maximize students’ math learning and to think about ways of supporting teachers in building their instructional craft. I took away a wealth of learning related to both of these goals, but I also found myself reflecting about what it really means to teach mathematics.
We’re developing young human beings. Math is the context.~ Deborah Ball
In the first morning session with students, Dr. Ball asked the students to introduce themselves and share something they liked to do. She made a point of learning to pronounce each name correctly and using each student’s name in conversation. She also spent time helping students learn each other’s names. During the afternoon debrief with educators, Dr. Ball explained that her commitment to using names was not only a way of valuing each student but also an investment in building the mathematical discourse which would be key to learning across the two-week program. Dr. Ball helped us think the relationship between the use of students’ names and their identities, and the connection between relationship-building and equity.
In the educator sessions across the week, Dr. Ball spoke frequently about her efforts to “see” each child. Whenever she talked with a student, Dr. Ball crouched down to the student’s eye level, physically demonstrating her interest in and care for this individual. Dr. Ball stated that the beginning of the school year should be about “seeing” children, not controlling them. She explained her goals of helping the students learn to see themselves as worthy and capable. She urged us to take seriously our responsibility to believe that all students should have agency over their learning and to make sure our teaching actions are consistent with this belief.
Dr. Ball offered several concrete strategies for “seeing” students and challenged us to think of others:
- Make opportunities to talk with each student individually
- Take time to read students’ journal writing
- Watch each student from a distance and up close
She encouraged us to think generously about students as we get to know them, to be careful not to make assumptions too quickly. She reminded us of a student in class whose mathematical thinking had not been visible in his journal entries but could be clearly seen when Dr. Ball talked with him individually. As a result of these opportunities to interact with a teacher who believed in his potential, this student began to see himself as “a person who is good at thinking about math.” Within days, he gained the confidence he needed to present his strategies to the class and answer questions from other students.
The Elementary Mathematics Laboratory opened my eyes to the importance of striving to “see” each student. It allowed me to witness the practice of teaching mathematics as a means of empowering students as learners and a vehicle for making our world a better place.
Questions for Reflection:
- As you begin this new school year, what are some ways you will work to appreciate and “see” each of your students?
- What strategies might you use to empower your students as learners and build their identities as mathematicians?