Letting Go

Danielle GoedelIn most school years I teach 8th grade students grade-level math as well as Algebra to accelerated learners.  This year I was more anxious than ever.  Knowing that the new 8th grade math standards are now more rigorous, and that the students moving straight from 7th grade math to Algebra (hence moving up a full grade level) would need to advance even faster, I knew I had to figure this out.  I started by taking a look at my teaching style and considering how best to use the modules available on EngageNY.org.

I realized that I was a more traditional teacher than I thought.  I always encouraged discussion between students, engaged students in their learning and had high expectations of them.  I also gave students all of the steps to solve problems, and encouraged them to follow.

“Parenthesis, Like Terms, Smaller x, Solve.”

I always taught solving equations in the same four steps and even made it more interesting by singing a little song.  If asked what my students could do well, I would have said, “Solving equations.”  It is not the only way to solve an equation, it was my way to solve an equation.  But, I knew that in order to make the jump in math understanding, my students could not just follow these steps.  They would need much more.

When I got to the solving equations section in the Algebra modules, the solution of an equation was modeled using four different solution methods.  All of them were appropriate and led to the same exact solution to the same equation. 

My accelerated learners became very anxious.  They were so used to being given steps and following them to reach a solution that they just didn’t know what to do with all of this mathematical freedom.  We had unconsciously created great math students who did not know how to think through a math problem.  They were unsure of themselves and didn’t even want to start.

Together my students carefully analyzed a few problems in which they each started the problem differently but came to the same solution.  They listed the steps taken and considered why they were mathematically sound procedures.  Shoulders started to relax and students began to talk with one another.  “How did you solve the problem?” they asked. 

I now have students who are growing confident in their ability to use mathematical properties to solve a math problem.  They are recognizing that even when the process is different than their neighbor, they are able to come to a correct solution.  My students are becoming independent math thinkers!

So far this year, I reached an even greater goal than my four-step approach ever could.  I now have students who can successfully solve equations AND who are confident to start and finish a problem.  That confidence transcends through all aspects of what we have progressed to learn.  Without letting go of my tried and true method I would have never seen this growth.  Allowing the students to take responsibility for their learning was exceptional learning for me.

Danielle Goedel is an 8th grade math teacher in the Sherburne-Earlville School District.  This is her first year using the modules on EngageNY.org.

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