She emailed me mid-lesson to offer an invitation. Freshly inspired by a conference with other math teachers, she hadn’t waited more than a day to try something new in her own Integrated Math A Readiness class. The subject line of her email read: “trying something new.” The body of the email dripped with honesty and the spirit of adventure: “…might crash and burn but totally common core if you feel like popping by.”
How could I not?
The gutsiness of the email wasn’t unexpected; this is a teacher I admire for her willingness to take risks and try new things. As a person who embodies a growth mindset, not just for her kids, but for herself as an educator, this was someone who wasn’t kidding when she said she didn’t know the outcome of the lesson. What she did know, however, was that thoughtfully risking change could lead to fantastic results. It did.
The lesson began with an infographic on child safety seats. Prompted by their teacher, the students filled one white board with answers to the question “What do you notice?” discussing the image and the information it presented. Next, they answered the question “What do you wonder?”
Following these prompts, the teacher broke the class into pairs, and students discussed what they believed the information was saying, discussing in terms of fractions and searching for clarity as they discussed measurement. Another math teacher walked through the room (ours is a department who visit each others’ classrooms) and his remark, accompanied by widened eyes: “They’re totally engaged.”
A few minutes later the class came together to talk about what they’d learned so far. One girl shook her head and said, “We got it totally wrong.” Her teacher touched her desk and said gently, “And that’s totally okay. This is just your first try at it. You can get it.” I could see the student’s shoulders loosen and her eyes pinch in a smile.
Partners worked together again, revising their initial attempts at explanation, or entirely reworking their approaches, as they needed. The teacher moved around the room, asking questions and praising students’ engagement. Students wrote and discussed, every one of them at work.
Not long into this final discussion, a student raised both her arms in victory and whooped (literally whooped) that she and her partner had gotten an answer they were proud of. Invited to explain their diagram to the class, the partners did so with a smile. Encouraged by their teacher’s exuberance, the girls shared with their peers, proud of the work they had done.
As they finished, a second group brought their diagram to the front of the room. They approached the question differently, but their smiles and confidence were the same.
A third group came to the document camera and began their impromptu presentation with the line “We did some pretty hard core math.” Grinning, they explained where they’d gone wrong in their first two attempts and how they felt pleased with their third go at the problem, which proved a different approach than either of the first two.
In the end, four of the five groups attacked the challenge in different ways. The students’ earnestness and comfort with not succeeding the first time was profound. These were students who were building their math skills at the same time they built resiliency and reinforced the idea that while they didn’t know yet, they could work hard (together) and figure it out.
I left the math class inspired. Yes, the lesson might have crashed and burned, but it didn’t. Under the smiling gaze of a gifted teacher, the lesson, and the learning as a result, soared and shined. Will this happen every single time? No. And just as this amazing teacher told her students, that’s okay. It’s about the willingness to take chances and embrace uncertainty in pursuit of something great.
I look forward to the next email I get from a teacher that begins “I’m trying something new…”