BRAINERD, Minn. — “Math isn’t my thing.”
“I’ve never been good at math.”
“I can’t help my child with math.”
These are common phrases Brainerd High School math teachers say they hear time and time again from those who may suffer from math anxiety.
Characterized by a negative emotional reaction to math that can be debilitating, math anxiety is an issue BHS math teachers are working to combat, while helping their students better understand the subjects.
Eunice Peabody, Janelle Menzel and Alexis Marcelo are ninth grade intermediate algebra teachers at BHS and shared with school board members recently some of the initiatives they have undertaken over the past few years to help bolster math skills, combat failing grades and make sure students are on par with state education standards.
“Math anxiety is a real thing, but it’s not genetic, it’s actually based on our experiences over time — positive experiences, negative experiences,” Menzel said. “And that can kind of create this feeling for some that math is not something for them. … And those genuine concerns have led us to some pretty important brain research.”
Research from Stanford University shows students with a growth mindset are more likely to challenge themselves and achieve success compared to those with a fixed mindset, which may lead to avoiding challenges and stagnating growth.
“We actually grow our brain by making mistakes,” Menzel said. “And I think it’s important for students to hear that and to know that, that in that time of productive struggle we experience the most growth in our brain, as opposed to, your brain doesn’t really grow much when you get the answer right.”
Those studies led to what the teachers described as pretty substantial changes to intermediate algebra.
For one, the three teachers make sure their classes align with each other so students are guaranteed to learn the exact same things no matter which teacher they have. They share common lesson templates with each other, give out the same homework, have the same summative assessments at the end of each unit and collaborate on scoring techniques to make sure they’re all scoring their students the same.
That commonality among lessons means they can share resources for students as well. The Google Classroom for each class looks identical, no matter who the teacher is. Teachers across middle and high school use Google Classroom to create, distribute and grade assignments online by sharing electronic files with students. All intermediate algebra students have access to the same Google Classroom with the same resources, which include instructional videos for those who need a recap of the day’s lesson.
Every day, one of the three teachers creates one or two simple 10-minute videos going over the concept taught that day. In the videos, students will see the teacher’s handwriting out and solving the problems with a voice over explaining the steps.
“They can pause it, they can rewind it. They can go back over that same concept as many times as they need to achieve mastery over that standard,” Peabody said.
The videos are able to help students who may not have fully grasped the concept in class, students who were absent for a day and even parents who want to better understand their child’s homework.
School board member Charles Black Lance said he thinks the videos are a good tool because students don’t have to endure any potential embarrassment or shame by asking for help or admitting they don’t understand anything. They can watch the videos confidentially on their own time.
Next, they discussed Edulastic, an online assessment tool to help teachers measure growth and find any achievement gaps.
With the tool, teachers can break down homework assignments both by question and by student to see information, including questions students got right and wrong, what some of the common wrong answers were and how long each student took on each question.
With a presentation setting, the teachers can randomize the data and give fake names to each student so they can present the data to the students for a lesson in error analysis.
“That is a great opportunity for us to have conversations during our warm up,” Marcelo said. “It is a great program overall to look at our data.”
If all the teachers notice a majority of their students got the same questions wrong, they know they might have to step back and take a look at how they teach those specific concepts.
Students are also retested on everything, meaning they essentially get two shots to show they understand the material. The teachers don’t reveal grades to the students on the first test, but instead use a point system to show the kids which concepts they got right and which they didn’t. That way, they know exactly what to brush up on for the next test.
The point system works better than grading, they said, because students who get a couple answers wrong but still get an A may not feel like they have to do anything more, and students who failed may feel discouraged.
“If they scored 90%, we want them to do better the next time around,” Marcelo said. “And if they get 100% the next time around, they deserve that 100% because at the end of the day, they didn’t get it then … but by the time it was all said and done, they now get it.”
Right now, the three teachers are working to implement a credit recovery program to help decrease math failure rates. They will tailor lessons to each student, letting them redo only the units they failed to recover credits they lost through failing the previous semester’s algebra class.
The last initiative they discussed is the response to intervention class designed for students who need some extra help in math. After the school year finishes, the three teachers look through the students coming into their intermediate algebra class the next year and weigh factors like standardized test scores, academic history and teacher intervention to identify 20 students that would benefit from the class.
Marcelo teaches that class, which the 20 students take concurrently with intermediate algebra. She explained the class as more of a guided practice, where she introduces the students to the algebra material the day before they learn it in their regular algebra class. That way, they have more time to grasp each concept.
“So they are actually finding success and being excited when they go into class because they already know how to do this before the teacher actually teaches it,” Marcelo said. “So they feel comfortable raising their hands.”
The intervention class counts as an elective credit, meaning students in that class have one less elective they get to choose. The teacher said students tend to respond well to the class though, and some even ask if there’s an option to do the same thing next year. Currently, though, intermediate algebra is the only level that offers the intervention class.
Parents, Marcelo said, are also typically supportive of their students being placed in that class.
But because Marcelo teaches the intervention during one hour, she cuts down on one hour of algebra she could be teaching, meaning class sizes increase slightly, as those 32 students are spread throughout other classes.
“But we feel like the trade-off is really worth it,” Peabody said.
Board members praised the teachers for their efforts, asking how the district can implement these methods across different subjects and in lower grade levels throughout the district.
In the future, Peabody said she could see these methods being slowly implemented in lower grades, as it’s hard to do everything all at once. She also said middle school math teachers have expressed interest in the instructional videos.
“In the end, we’re definitely trying to decrease our failure rate,” Peabody said. “... But more importantly, we’re trying to get kids to understand math, and sometimes for the first time."