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Math Class: A Time to Stand and Deliver
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Brenda Dyck reflects on her childhood math anxiety and how that impacts her daily life as a classroom teacher -- a math teacher, at that! Included: Join a discussion about math anxiety!


Math class -- the very thought of it provokes fear, insecurity, even dread in a large proportion of the students who walk into our schools. Into my class they come, lugging their negative mental models about math. They act their mental models out in seemingly unrelated ways, such as appearing apathetic, acting bored, daydreaming, not doing their homework, or misbehaving.

They readily refer to themselves as kids who "just can't do math." I call them the "mathematically abused." I recognize them because I used to be one of those students myself. I spent years thinking mathematical learning was beyond my grasp. By fourth grade, I could easily identify the sound of irritation in my teacher's voice when she re-explained a concept that I continued to misunderstand. I would often say I "got it" because I knew how exasperated my math teacher would be if I didn't.

Stupid took on a very personal meaning for me in math class. I still remember the embarrassment of being asked publicly for an answer I didn't have. Even worse, I remember being asked to work out a math question on the chalkboard, knowing full well that I didn't have a clue what to do.

When I was a student, math class was something to endure. I looked forward to the day I could leave it forever!

No one is more astonished than I am that, today, I find myself teaching math! To my great surprise, I have discovered that I have an ability to work with students who struggle in math. I think I have that ability because I understand how stress can interfere with a student's ability to learn.

Each day, I vow that a significant amount of my teaching effort will be directed toward refurbishing my students' view of themselves as mathematical learners. Throughout the year, I employ intentional strategies directed at rebuilding my students' mathematical self-esteem. Establishing a safe environment where my students can confront their math fears and insecurities is one of my main goals.

Last spring, just before the sixth-grade achievement tests were to be administered, I decided it was time -- time to share with my students the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver. That movie, based on a true story, is about a class of high school math students from a poor East Los Angeles area who progressed from troubled, disinterested learners into committed calculus students who sat for the AP calculus exam. Those students not only wrote the exam but in addition, all passed it!

The film moved my students immensely. It was well worth the two class periods that would have been devoted to geometric solids. In our debriefing session after the movie, we discussed various negative mental models with which my students struggled. Following are a handful of those models:

  • My mom and dad weren't good at math; neither am I.
  • An ability in math is related to racial/socioeconomic class.
  • Once you have trouble in math, you'll always have trouble in math.
  • It's the "dorky" kids who try hard at math.
  • Girls will not be successful in advanced math.
  • Only students who have their lives together will do well at math.
  • When math gets tough, its better to just give up.
  • Math is boring.
  • Math teachers are boring too.
Stand and Deliver demonstrated what happens when kids don't give up. It showed what students are able to accomplish when they work hard and believe in themselves. For me, the movie spoke of the power that exists when a teacher and students truly connect; it spoke of the magical things that can happen when a teacher commits to the long haul in student learning.

Watching a movie in math class took my students by surprise since watching a movie is not really a "math class thing to do." But you know what they say about unexpected learning: The unexpected is enhanced and remembered for a long time.


Learning Guide for Stand and Deliver
A helpful guide for teachers who use the movie Stand and Deliver in the classroom.

Mental Models
This resource provides some information on the power of mental models.

Wheel of Multiple Perspectives
Teachers can use this tool to explore their students' mental models concerning math.


Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.


Article by Brenda Dyck
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 11/9/2001
Updated 09/29/2005