Emily doesn't really like math. She'll tell you that right to your face if you ask her. Not in a confrontational or disrespectful way; that's not her nature. But with a scrunched up half- frown and shoulder shrug, and a nearly imperceptible shake of the head, she'll say, quietly, almost apologetically, "No, not really."
I watch her walk into class every day. She's tall for a fifth grader, but when she folds herself in at her desk in the back of the room she shrinks down to about half her size, like she's trying to disappear.
Emily's very quiet. She never interrupts. She won't raise her hand. If you call on her she'll respond, but in a whisper you can hardly hear. She doesn't cause any trouble. She follows directions. Her journal is always turned to the right page. She always has a pencil and an eraser. She turns her homework in on time. If you didn't know any better, if you were just a casual observer, you'd think she knows what she's doing because she looks like she knows what she's doing. She's one of those under the radar kids.
I watch her at her desk, elbows flat, head down, pencil up and moving. She appears to be working away. What's she doing? She's managed to get by, doing just well enough to keep one step ahead of the basic skills program. But if you sit down next to her and really, but I mean really try to get at what it is she actually knows, if you look at her work and try to ask her some questions about it, you'll find that her understanding is very superficial. She's doing her best to remember and follow some rules she's been told. She's memorized some things, but they're all fragmented. They don't cohere. She studies for the tests, and does her best to hold the pieces together, but when the tests are over the pieces fall back apart. She doesn't really understand. And despite her best attempts to hide, I know that she knows she doesn't really understand. I think it bothers her, which is why she says she doesn't really like math anyway.
I have to be careful. I can't poke around too much or she'll shrink down even further, away to a place I might not be able to reach. It doesn't take much for me to imagine what math experiences she's had to make her feel this way. I know it's not too late to undo them.
Justin Lanier, in his brilliant, moving Ignite talk The Space Around the Bar, says the following:
"Students Will Be Able To (And Will Never Want To Again.) This is how we can write our lesson objectives if we don't pay attention to how kids feel about math."
Rich and I agree. Rich and I are trying to create a classroom where it's OK to be wrong; where you can ask and answer questions that you yourself have generated and that serve an intellectual need; where you can solve problems in ways that make sense to you, even if it's not the way they want you to do it in the teacher's manual; where tasks have low barriers to entry and high ceilings and open middles and three acts; where you can move around the room and work them out on big whiteboards; where you can collaborate with your classmates, play games, talk, argue, and laugh. We're trying to create that kind of a classroom. We don't always succeed, but we're trying.
Emily's my measuring stick, my benchmark, my litmus test. Whenever Rich and I re-work a lesson, or I get an idea for a task or an activity, I ask myself: What will Emily think? How's she going to react? I want her approval. If I can get her approval I know I'm onto something. The skills and the content are the easy part. If we can create the conditions in class where she feels it's OK to just be herself, to feel safe and secure enough stand up and stretch out to her full height, I know true learning will occur.
When class is ending, I'll find her and ask, "Well, what did you think?" She doesn't give much away. It doesn't always go as well as we thought it would. But sometimes I get a guarded, "Well, that was OK." I'll do a little fist pump, and she'll maybe even smile. Baby steps. Lesson objective: met.