About a month ago, my son was struggling hard with fractions. Despite all of his teachers’ and my best efforts, he had missed some mathematical experiences to understand parts of a whole. We worked at our kitchen table together for days to try to build upon and solidify his fragile understanding. After many frustrating hours together, I realized that this time together wasn’t productive for either of us. He was coming away feeling defeated – as though he couldn’t make anything stick in his mind – and I was feeling frustrated that I couldn’t provide him with just the right learning moment in all those trying hours.
I decided that I would change my strategy. Somewhere I heard a reminder that kids already have SOME understanding of what we are trying to teach them. Some experience had taught them part of this ‘new’ learning already and they were not coming to a lesson as a blank slate. The curriculum is designed to build upon and extend prior knowledge, I just needed to find out what his knowledge was. So, I asked him what he knew about fractions as soon as he sat down. Not what he remembered about fractions, but what he knew for sure.
It turns out that he knew some good stuff! He knew that the denominator was all the pieces and they had to be the same size, he knew the algorithm for multiplying and for dividing fractions. Then I asked him what he thought he needed to focus on for the upcoming test. As it happens, he also knew he needed to work on adding and subtracting fractions and he could identify that his biggest hurdle was finding common denominators because he struggled with an efficient way to find common multiples. Listing multiples was his only strategy and that was tedious work for bigger numbers because it was taking too long.
I think about this moment and felt some real mom guilt about all that lost time together. I wish I would have asked him what he understood first and then asked him what he wanted to work on improving. As soon as we could focus on the specifics, he was able to build his understanding in an afternoon. Then we spent some time talking about reasoning strategies for finding common denominators and putting fractions in lowest terms, e.g., what could he identify as a ‘fact’ (even numbers can be divided by two) and what he knew was an efficient strategy (multiples of fives and tens).
Before the test I knew he was so stressed about, I told him to remind himself about all the things he already knew about fractions. We worked on that positive self-talk together to reassure him that he had the knowledge for this assessment and that he would have a starting place for every challenge.
Engaging my son with his own learning made it more meaningful for him. He knew there were some things he was already quite good at and other things that needed some more practice. He walked away feeling like he could be successful and his confidence was built up with that self-talk; knowing what he was capable of helped him to know that he had ability and strength as a mathematician.
I think about what this means for students in school. What do they know about themselves? What would it mean if our observations and conversations with students began with asking them their strengths and asking them what they want to improve upon? As a radical dreamer this year, I’m redefining my role in assessment as a facilitator for students’ understanding; to help them articulate what they know, advocate for what they need, and develop strategies to better understand themselves as learners.
Using some strategies, such as a K-W-L chart (Know, Wonder, Learned) or an opening mind map were some helpful ways I used to assess student knowledge before beginning a unit or new topic. We always did this as a class and we revisited the chart or list at the end to add to our learning. Now, I feel that’s different from building individual students’ understanding of themselves as they are learning. It’s different from empowering each student to know themselves and to letting them know that I believe they are active and capable learners.
What does this look like in my year of radical dreaming? I dream of this opportunity in small groups, in 1:1 conferences, and in the small moments that I know matter to them – like when that really anxious student is stuck just before beginning a task. I want them to know that I am their cheerleader, that they are not passive receivers of knowledge, that we are partners in helping each other become better mathematicians, readers, writers, scientists, and learners.
Thinking about annual learning plans, professional learning, and professional goals, I wonder about the opportunity to reflect on my own growth as an educator. When is the last time I reflected on what I am doing well? When is the last time I voiced what I need to improve upon? Who is my partner, my cheerleader in my journey? I wonder about the impact of a supportive space for educators to know themselves, to understand their strengths, and identify their areas of growth. It may take some time, vulnerability, and courage, but I think it would be worth it.
And just in case you were wondering, my son brought home a solid B on that fractions test.