Saturday, January 10, 2015

Watching Students Struggle

Coming back from winter break, I found myself pressed for time in my grade 9 math class. We have just three weeks before the end of the semester, in which I need to squeeze one more unit (linear equations - arguably one of the most important concepts the grade 9s will take with them as they pursue higher levels of math), a unit test, a practice test for EQAO (don't get me started), the EQAO test itself (lasting two days) and the summative project.

We haven't had a snow day yet, but if we do lose a day because of one, this it going to be cutting things awfully close.

My instinct returning from winter break was to rush the students through the learning goals of this last unit - cover as much ground as possible - in what little time we have left. But I knew, too, that particularly with these linear equations, there needed to be a deeper level of understanding. 

I forced myself to slow down. Instead of assigning many small, quick learning checks, I assigned a a larger activity, forcing the students to also slow down. Forcing them to take their time and really understand what it was they were doing. Forcing them to not get the correct answer right away, but instead have to tweak and place in check what they knew as they went. 

The students found the leap to using equations to represent linear functions to be very hard. On Monday and Tuesday, I heard many students complaining about how much they "hate" this unit, and how difficult they find it. This has really been their first challenging unit in this course, and this is the first time all semester I have heard my students speak like this. It was disheartening.

To make matters worse (in their eyes), the activity I assigned them is in Desmos... which many of them haven't used before and were very hesitant about trying.

We had some pep talks in class, we discussed the value of being challenged and growth mindset ("This is hard!" they'd say; "Good! That means you're learning!" I'd say), and we talked about how the only way to get through this was to TRY things and to make mistakes - to take the time to play with Desmos and play with the equations. That things this challenging don't come immediately. To be honest, though, I didn't think they believed me.

Things started to change, however, on Wednesday of this week. Students started coming into class saying "I did it!!" They told me about how it took them one-and-a-half, or two, or two-and-a-half hours the night before, but they figured out Desmos and they got their initials done. They told me about how they understood this whole linear equation thing. And they told me all this with huge smiles. 

They started telling others in class that it wasn't that hard, but that they, too, HAD to play with it. They started helping each other, and creating things in Desmos together. Students would come up to me with their tablet to ask how to place a line or "cut" a line, and then figure it out on their own and literally cheer with joy. No longer afraid, they jumped into the rest of the learning goals of the unit, and are picking them up much faster than I would have expected.

Within a week, our class went from knowing nothing about linear equations, to being able to graph them (from an idea AND from an equation), figuring out the equation from a given graph, creating tables of values from equations and from graphs, and determining the equations of horizontal and vertical lines. I'm super proud of them for digging in deep and overcoming the urge to give up. I think they are also quite proud of themselves.

As teachers, we naturally want what's best for the students. In the beginning of the week, it was tough for me to stand by, watch my students struggle, and listen to them complain without jumping in to help. There were many times I really had to bite my tongue in order to do nothing but encourage them.

But taking the time to let them struggle paid off with huge dividends in the end. Something I definitely have to keep in mind the next time we tackle something new and difficult in class.


  1. So true, it is always a struggle for the students at the start and the journey of seeing them problem solve and share with others the learning is for sure amazing! Great post.

    1. It was almost like a switch had been flipped from one day to the next, for those that took the time and effort to figure it out. It's so nice when you can find that perfect balance between being challenging but still being do-able (as opposed to too easy or impossibly difficult). Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thanks for sharing this story (and the resource)! I am a teacher candidate right now (Math/Science teachables), and you're blog is a wonderful resource in of itself!

    1. Thank you for your kind comment! It's been an exciting, trial-by-fire kind of year for me, and I'm happy to share what worked and what didn't. Let me know if you have any questions :) Good luck in your program!!

  3. Heather,
    Your description of how you let go and allowed your students to struggle with this unit is priceless. It is something that when I can stop worrying about the outcome of the learning and trust the process (literally and figuratively), the kids learn so much more. They don't only learn the content, they also learn what it means to persevere, fail and try again. They learn that being successful requires hard work and time (practice). This is a lesson for life. Thanks for sharing.

    1. There's always that unknown, right? What if the student can't overcome the obstacles and achieve understanding? But they always pull through if, like you say, we trust the process :) I like seeing their newfound confidence, too, once they've figured it all out. They know they worked hard and their hard work paid off. Thanks for your comment!


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