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Can I Try Again?

What are your thoughts on doing math four hours a day? Does it give you a little bit of anxiety? Whether you are on the side of "oh, heck no!" or "bring it on!" I want to share with you a perspective from students who experienced just that.

I received a call on a Thursday asking if I would co-teach a math summer camp starting on the following Monday. Students would be coming from 8-12, five days a week for the next two weeks. Fortunately, my teaching partner had many of the tasks built out, but I was honestly excited to just get in there and experience math with students.

We spent each and every day of those ten days digging in to some incredibly rich and challenging problems. For example, students were tasked with finding the *fewest squares in an 11 x 13 rectangle. You can see the outline and an example below. However; I challenge you to find fewer squares than 8!

In each of these experiences, I would walk around to notice how students were approaching the problems, if they were engaging and staying engaged, and what sorts of hiccups they were running into. There were times when I would think, 'this may be a task we should set aside for now' as I watched students slowly stop working and start talking about other things. The nice thing about having a teaching partner was her insistence that we let it lie for a bit and see what happens. Inevitably, we would push through and students would start finding solutions that they could share with the class. This would invigorate them and we were off and running again.

At the center of the math explorations was the idea that it's ok for something to be hard, it's ok for you not to have a solution yet, and it's ok coming back to problems and trying again. We did this for two weeks.

On the last day, students were set to take a survey about their feelings towards math, however I was interested to know what they would say about their experiences when we shared as a group. I asked them to share how they felt this experience was different than doing math in their classrooms. Many students brought up the point that they never get to do four hours of math! Fair point. But there was one comment that really stuck with me. One student shared that they liked that they got to try again. I pushed for more asking if they were referring to behavior or doing math. While they did say that they felt behavior was part of it (the students were so incredibly engaged for the ten days that behavior was rarely an issue), they felt like they wanted to keep working on problems and find solutions because they could always try again. Each time we gathered after working on a problem, students would share their ideas, but ultimately everyone could go back and rework what they had tried. Other students agreed that they felt confident and weren't worried about making mistakes. (That's another thing we worked on for the duration of the camp).

"I like that I got to try again."

In each experience, I try to imagine how this translates to the reality of the classroom. While teachers have limited time to spend on mathematics each day, I wonder about the practice of saving problems to come back to at another time. If we know that students have to experience the math to make sense and understand, then we must also give space for that to happen. It's great when students see that progress in a single math class, but there are times that it simply doesn't play out that way. While not every class is focused on rich and challenging problems, (there is a time for practice) it may be worthwhile for students to experience reengaging and retrying with the same problem from time to time.

I'd love to hear your solutions from the problem above! Try it out and let me know.

Take care,


*Fewest Squares is a problem taken from Jo Boaler's YouCubed summer camp resources.

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