Success in math involves much more than just working with numbers. It's about developing a growth mindset and the confidence to bravely tackle challenges when they inevitably come along. As an extension of our annual "Week of Inspirational Math," Lower School Math Specialist Ms. Stacy Shaener is using strengths-based strategies in the classroom to bolster our students' sense of self-efficacy and inspire them to reach toward their fullest potential in math.
Ms. Shaener has a robust network of professional development contacts that she uses to stay up to date on new and better ways to teach math. This summer, she saw that Beth McCord Kobett (Stevenson University) and Karen S. Karp (Johns Hopkins University) were offering a workshop for teachers using their new book, "Strengths-Based Teaching in Math." She immediately signed up for the program.
"It was pretty amazing to interact with the authors themselves. It's all about using asset-based language. When you're talking to students, it can be easy to use deficit language. 'My student doesn't know all of their math facts.' But with strengths-based teaching, you start with what they know and work from there — you start with their strengths. 'My student knows all of her 2's, and we are going to use that to work on her 3's.' It's a small turnaround in your language and perspective, but it makes a big difference." — Ms. Shaener
This type of strategy requires both the teacher and the student to focus on skills the child already has, establishing a positive framework from which to grow. And it can include "soft skills" like perseverance, communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. This method gives every student an entry point into the math conversation regardless of where they are on the spectrum of learning. And it provides a self-evaluation tool for students to reflect on where they are and where they want to go. That type of awareness is a critical component to later success in math and all subjects.
"Helping students identify in themselves what they do well is so important. And we have to be really specific with students about what their strengths are. When I give feedback in class, it's never just 'Great job.' I choose specific things from their work to help model this thinking for them, 'I like how you were able to break up those numbers' or 'I like how you added on to Stacy's idea.'' — Ms. Shaener
Lessons for Building Self Awareness
In addition to using positive, asset-based language when talking with students about math, Ms. Shaener teaches lessons that specifically encourage students to identify and communicate their strengths.
3rd Grade "Head Full of Strengths"
In this activity, the class begins by reading My Head is Full of Colors, a book in which the main character wakes each morning to find her head full of ideas that help her throughout the day. Students brainstorm what types of mathematical ideas are "in their heads," write them down, and then create an interactive paper plate model of themselves that communicates their mathematical strengths using fractional parts of a whole.
5th Grade Math Strengths Poem
Similar to 3rd grade, remote and in-person 5th graders talk as a group about math concepts that they feel good about or understand. Each student then creates a poem using prompts like:
Four adjectives that describe your math strengths
Three math activities we have done that you love
Two of your favorite math topics to learn
Two ways you want to grow as a math student this year
Three people who you like to ask for math help
Four tools that help you with math
These 3rd and 5th grade examples are engaging, fun, and give every student a chance to participate at the level that is right for them. Students learn to self-assess their abilities in a positive way, building a foundation for learning increasingly challenging math concepts throughout the year.
Support for Our Students, Support for Our Teachers
As a school, we are committed to meeting the individual needs of a diverse group of learners and believe that children do best when they have a committed team of adults supporting them. Mrs. Shaener helps our Lower School students make math a priority while also making it fun. Every year she introduces new techniques and activities and works closely with teachers to keep every student moving forward with confidence in math.