Math as a Second Language

This weekend I had the great pleasure of sitting in and participating in a session with Manan Shah (@shahlock) at EdCamp NJ. If I am being honest, I went to the session because I have known Manan for a while through twitter and missed his session at NJ/PA ECET2 in September. I wanted to see what he had to say, but I was not expecting it to pertain to me. At first I was not sure how it did pertain to me, but I was enjoying seeing Manan in his element.

As the session went on I pulled some very important, meaningful lessons from this session. I learned more in that hour than perhaps at any other time at EdCamp. I view Math in a completely different way. Math is not some crazy different thing, it is simply a different language.

We treat math as something more complicated than we should. Yes, learning the formal constructs of a new language is difficult, but it can be done. We have tremendous patience for kids learning to read and write a language, yet with math we get frustrated. Our anxiety in Math is largely generated by people telling us how “wrong” we are when the answers don’t match theirs.

Sitting in a session with lots of “math people” was interesting. I never realized how much blame they place on lower grade teachers for the struggles of their kids. I don’t know when I started identifying as an “ELA person” because all throughout High School I thought of myself as more the opposite. I generally avoided Math in college because I found it wasn’t engaging me.

So here it is, when young kids feel like they can do something well, they start doing it on their own, and often. Encouraging them in Math the way we encourage them in other areas is important. They are learning a language. The language has a lot of rules, procedures, and exact meanings that need to be used in order to communicate effectively (much like philosophy) and they are developing.

In order to build their confidence we need to treat Math as differently. I always talk about the “light bulb” moment for 1st graders when they realize the world of print is now available to them. When the realize that they can actually read. It is like the blind getting their first sight. I never mention that same moment in Math, but honestly, it happens much more frequently. The moment when kids realize that counting blocks slows them down. The moment when they understand place value, realize that graphs represent numbers in visual form, or the inverse relationship between addition and subtraction. There are many “light bulb” moments as kids explore the language of math. Each one is worth celebrating.

The key to this becomes a two pronged approach. First: help kids understand that Math language is how they explain math concepts in the world. Second: when kids stop making sense, we need to back it up until we find the problem with how they are communicating and help them find a way to share their math knowledge with the world.

I pulled this and much more from Manan Shah trying to guide this session away from making it simply an EdCamp edition of #rantchat. Math isn’t a mystery, nor a source of misery, but instead, simply another language where kids are learning to speak and read in their early schooling years. Have patience, celebrate the small “a’ha” moments, and stop telling kids how WRONG everything is when the do Math. Maybe Math will be “cool” again soon!

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