Why I Share My Story
Molly, Math Teacher - Murray Hill MS
Molly has used StoryStrong Math for both reflecting deeply on herself but also in working with her students.
When I was hired to teach math at Murray Hill I was told that I was going to teach the Gifted and Talented classes. The math team leader said that since I was a GT kid I would be able to relate to the GT students more. She assumed that since I had a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and earned my Masters in teaching but the age of 22 that I was the kind of kid that never struggled in school. In reality, when I was in middle school, I was in below grade level mathematics - I was in a class that was reviewing elementary school math because we weren’t ready middle school math. The thing was, I thought I was always good at math, I understood how numbers go together but all my teachers saw was that I couldn’t solve the word problems and they thought I didn’t understand the math. What they didn’t know was that I actually struggled to read, a lot. By the time I entered middle school, I couldn’t read and my teachers didn’t know it, they just thought I couldn’t do math. When I tried to read a book at night, I would always fall asleep. My mother took me to an outside study center where they said, “you definitely have serious reading challenges.” They said, for me to read a chapter in a book was the equivalent of someone running a marathon. It was physically exhausting to read and this meant the word problems were almost impossible to solve. For the next few years I was frustrated because I was in a math class where I understood everything but in an English class where I couldn’t read the books. By the time I started high school I had learned some strategies to read better, I started working really hard and focused on understanding the content in every class but I was still always behind.
Despite working twice as hard as my friends, to whom school seemed to come naturally, I still didn’t get the grades I wanted.
Fast forward to today, I currently teach 8th grade Math 8 and Geometry GT. I told all of my students this story at the beginning of the year. I told them that I didn’t just appear as some person who lives in the school; who knows all there is to know about math and numbers and shapes. I wanted them all to know that I also really struggled as a student; that when I their age, I didn’t have it all figured out and school didn’t come easily. I especially wanted the on grade level students to know that I was in the same seat as them, and I wanted the students who have learning disabilities like I do to know that I understand the daily struggle of feeling like you are always behind.
Because I was honest with my story, not only at the beginning of the year but with every Story Strong lesson, my students were able to tell me their stories and identities honestly and bravely. They described their success and failures and how their desires to do well did not always translate into the grades they wanted. Many students explained that it takes them a long time to get a concept and their teachers don’t always give them the time they need. They talked about how being in GT makes everyone think they always have the right answers and sometimes that pressure is too much. One day, I pulled out a group of the quietest kids in the class and when I told them that I am an introvert just like them, they were shocked and started talking about how just because they don’t like to talk in class doesn’t mean they are dumb or don’t know what is really going on. Other students wrote about when they were younger and moved to Maryland they couldn’t understand English but math was the universal language they understood and it kept up their confidence to know that other concepts would fall into place one day too. I would have never known this if we hadn’t paused long enough to ask the students to share their stories. One student drew a picture to represent her identity; it was a collection of math symbols that were all scratched out with picture of her crying in the corner which is how she has felt in math class her whole life - despite being above grade level. After we learned the first concept in math, I pulled that student aside and asked her if she understood the concept. She said yes and together we erased just a little bit of the scratches on her paper because she had just a little bit more clarity on the subject. My goal as a teacher is for all of my students to feel confident; for them to understand that they do know what they are doing. And if they don’t, it’s okay to ask questions. If we all knew how to do everything right the first time, we wouldn’t have schools.
This year, I tried to focus on helping students feel successful in math.
That meant teaching students how to study for a math test, or leaving a student alone when he didn’t turn in the makeup work. Earlier in the year, there were a few students who wouldn’t accept my help because they could not articulate what they needed. When I started eating lunch with them, they began to feel more comfortable in my class and now walk up to me and ask me to check their papers. Sometimes I purposefully did not show a student a poor grade on an assignment but was ecstatic when she got the B that I know she worked really hard to get. Success does not always have to be an A on a paper; for a student it can be measured as simply as answering a question on your own or solving one more problem today than you did yesterday. And when students feel successful in math, their math identities are more positive. My students who are introverts now ask more questions in class. The girl who drew a picture of herself crying is the first one to raise her hand when I ask a question. My students who need more time on assignments now ask to take them home to complete along with their homework. Three students whose first language is not English, are now the first ones to finish the Classwork, every day.
In the final project, many students admitted math is not their favorite subject, but that they are learning what it takes to be successful. One of the most important roles in this is a teacher who is willing to take the time to learn each student’s identity. Through the Story Strong curriculum, I have learned that I am capable of connecting with students because I know what it’s like to struggle too. I have learned that there are more ways than one to measure student success. I have learned that asking students how they feel about the math is just as important as asking what they know - all you have to do, is ask.
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