When Your Teaching Does Stuff On Its Own

For my thirteenth birthday my mom gave me a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. That was probably my first exposure to a line that I’ve since sometimes heard writers espouse, which is that their fictional characters can surprise them. King says: “your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. . . . And it will solve a lot of your problems, believe me.”

What a weird thing to say! But I think it’s actually a fairly common phenomenon. When I’m teaching, sometimes I know what I’m doing, but often I don’t. I’m just doing. And sometimes this leads to changes in my teaching that sort of just…happen.

Here’s an example. At some point over the past nine months — I couldn’t tell you when — I started asking kids to try to “add-on” to other kids’ comments. Juan shares an strategy, I ask, Can anyone add-on to that idea? Adding-on is helpful. It’s now a stock phrase of mine, I must say it three times daily.

And I think it’s helped! Conversations are only conversations if we’re responding. The opposite of adding-on is announcing. At the extremes, it’s no longer a conversation but a series of monologues. Those don’t help us learn how to talk about math.

There are other little things like this that have piled up this year. These changes feel connected, but I don’t know how.

Here’s another one. I’ve started reminding kids to ask lots of questions. I used to stand back and even try to disappear into the background. Now, though, I’m trying to paint question-asking as an important part of being a math student, the difference between being stumped and learning. Not all the time, but I definitely say something like “And try to ask questions, asking questions is good” a few times a day.

Does that have anything to do with asking for add-ons? Maybe it goes like this: I’m starting to put my finger on specific actions that help kids learn in my classes. That seems like part of it, at least.

Here’s a last way that my teaching has changed this year all on its own. I’ve changed some of my prompts for thinking to include a prompt for kids to “study” something. Study this diagram for a few seconds. What can you figure out? I don’t know how or when this phrase entered my teaching, but I like it. It describes what I want students to do while thinking. I don’t want them to look at a diagram, or to check out the diagram. I want thought, investment. “Studying” suggests a sort of seriousness, but it’s also open-ended. (It’s not “calculate” or “find.”)

Maybe I’ll look back in a year and be able to see how all these little changes are related, part of a flock. Maybe someone else can see it now. At this moment, I’m grasping at straws.

It seems to me that there’s this race between what we do and what we understand about what we do, and the race never stops. Sometimes what we understand gets ahead of what we can do, and maybe that’s what clarity feels like. And sometimes what can do is ahead, and that feels like instinct. And maybe when the race is close, that’s what it feels like to be confused, or to have your instincts fail you. But — and this is where the race metaphor falls apart — this is a good place for both parties, what we know and what we do. It’s a productive conflict.

I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t really worry about whether teaching will ever become boring. Those fears are long past!

2 thoughts on “When Your Teaching Does Stuff On Its Own

  1. What finally pulled me from math to math ed was realizing that the problems are harder and more interesting.

    I’m not feeling the race metaphor yet, but as with most of your ideas, I’ll give it some time. (Because usually you are ahead of me.)


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