A thoughtful colleague once posed that question at a staff
meeting where tensions and emotions were running high about an issue we were
grappling with. The reaction was
immediate...stunned silence. I remember
sitting there wondering, “What’s the right answer?” I went over the thoughts and actions that had
led to that meeting and realized that we had been trying to solve a problem by
doing the same things repeatedly with...unsurprisingly...the same result. At that point, the discussion took a turn for
the better as we started brainstorming new ideas and strategies to solve our
problem.

After 16 years of teaching grades 1-5, I became a Tier 3,
middle school math teacher. That first
week I looked out at my new students and saw them slouched down in their seats
avoiding eye contact with me or looking back at me with boredom, challenge and
even fear. I was going to have to do
something different to grow their intelligence to understand the concepts and
skills necessary to exit the class and change their fixed mindsets to growth
mindsets. I guided my students to write
mission statements like this: Use a math
growth mindset to grow our math knowledge and skills so that we can exit this
class and be successful in a regular math class, college, career and everyday
life. I also significantly changed what
I had my students learn and do in the first 2 weeks of school. The following
are a few of the growth mindset learning activities I guided them through in
the first few weeks:

●
Learning the difference between a growth and
fixed mindset

●
Discussing how a growth mindset can foster
success in math class and beyond

●
Learning how the brain is like a muscle because
it grows when it is exercised/challenged

●
Connecting goal setting to practice and
perseverance

●
Defining/learning/strategizing about grit and
overcoming obstacles

●
Discussing what it means to be a “math person”

●
Learning about the benefits of asking for help

Throughout the year, my students reflected on their mindset
over the last unit of study and set growth mindset goals for the next. I posted growth mindset messages out in the
hallway for them to see as they entered my classroom. Messages like: “What we think, or what we
know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is WHAT WE DO”. I taught my paraeducators how to use growth
mindset language with the students. I
invited students to share their success “stories” so that others could learn
from them.

Then our math department made the brilliant decision to
read

__Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ POTENTIAL through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and INNOVATIVE TEACHING__by Jo Boaler as a book study...and I realized that there was so much more to fostering a math growth mindset! I know many of you are familiar with this research-based book that gives educators a proven, practical roadmap to mathematics success...but the question is will we now have the creativity and courage to do something different? Maybe a more important question would be, “Do we truly believe that ALL students can learn to high levels.?” And if we do, what are we willing to do differently to make that happen? Will we find a way to:
●
Give ALL students access to the highest levels
in math at school...stop ability grouping?

●
Take the time to give students open/low
floor-high ceiling math tasks that encourage the opportunity for important
learning and making important connections so that students believe that math is
a learning subject and NOT a performance subject?

●
Teach math so that students appreciate the
beauty of mathematics, explore how maths are connected and learn how to apply
the subject?

●
Teach in a way that shows students that math
performance is NOT associated with speed...so they understand that the best
mathematicians are slow at math because they are deep thinkers and want to make
connections, think logically and apply the depth/breadth of mathematics to a
variety of problems...so students understand that math is a creative, visual,
connected and living subject to do great and everyday things?

●
Not give up on one student...even if they have
given up on themselves? Act like we know
we are the dream-keepers?

I now pose that all-important question to my students every
year on the first day of school. I give
them a 3 X 5 index card and ask them to write the question on one side and
their answer on the other. I guide a
brief discussion about their thoughts and answers to the question, but when
they ask me to tell them the right answer I reply not today. I give them a big, welcoming smile and tell
them that we will find the answer together as a class. And we do.
I purposefully look for every opportunity to ask that question again as
individual students, collaborative groups and the whole class try to persist in
solving a problem with an ineffective or inefficient strategy. I foster independence by posing that question
initially instead of giving immediate scaffolding or support. They begin to understand that I am
encouraging creativity and the courage to try something different. They begin to understand that there are many
ways to solve problems...to change...to grow.
I believe that we can change and grow as educators too.

**Currently three fifths of U.S. students fail mathematics. My question to you is, “Do we try harder or do something different?”**
Amy
Sperline

Instructional
Coach/Mentor

Jefferson
Elementary

Richland
School District

amy.sperline@rsd.edu

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