I have no problem admitting that I was never good at math. In elementary I was the last one to pass my multiplication facts. I developed an extremely high anxiety in math when I was in middle school because I always had to go to the chalkboard and complete math problems. In high school, I never understood how to use the F.O.I.L. method and really never understood how math even related to my life. I failed many tests and just didn’t have an appreciation or understanding of anything math related. I always dreamed of becoming a teacher so I could make math a fun subject where all students wanted to learn and everyone felt comfortable participating. I knew that I could turn my negative experiences into something positive and that I would be able to identify with and reach students who struggled in math.
I have been teaching elementary school since 1995. Teaching grades 3, 4, and 5 has really shown me that math is still a touchy subject for many and I see the importance of math in the daily lives of my students. I see anxiety in some and lack of confidence in others. Many students can solve an algorithm but don’t understand the process or concept. More concerning to me is that students are disengaging in this critical subject. For some reason, math is different. I have seen a connotation with math that it is impossible. I am never going to be good at math. My parents were not good at it so I don’t have to be. I have taught every subject but math is a sensitive one for students and parents. Over the years, I have learned the importance of finding ways to increase student engagement in my math classes for all of my students; advanced, at grade level, and remedial.
We constantly hear how test scores and conceptual understanding need to increase in math. There is an effective way to accomplish this. It is not by adding another program or purchasing a new curriculum. We are constantly adding new programs that go away after a few years. What was done twenty years ago comes back now with a new name or new twist. Over my teaching career, I have developed the E.P.I.C. model to engage students in math. This is a holistic approach that gets to the root of the problem that students of all achievement levels are having in math class. When implemented correctly, this model will get both immediate and long term results. The ultimate goal of this is for all students to develop an intrinsic love of math.
The E.P.I.C. Structure of Math Engagement has Four Key Parts
Interests, Goals, History, Relationships
Objectives, Differentiation, Application, Activities
Types of Smart, Conceptual Understanding, Questioning and Feedback, Assessment
MATHxiety, Self-efficacy, Routines, Environment
This is a holistic approach and there is an element of pacing that needs to be followed during the implementation of this structure. For our purposes, I am going to highlight just one part of each main category.
In the EXPERIENCES category it is clearly important to know as much about each child as we can so we can find innovative ways to include all students in our math class. One of my favorite parts of this category is to get to know the math history of each child. This gives me very helpful information such as the child’s first experiences with math and their successes in math. I have done this with 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in an essay form and it is very important to have a level of trust with each child before administering this. When students share their feelings about math, I make it clear that it is ok if they say they don’t like math and it is their least favorite subject. For me, this is helpful information as I am getting to know the whole child so I can meet their needs.
We want to unleash the POTENTIAL of all of our math students and see their confidence and achievement excel. Differentiating and providing a variety of activities in my math classes is key to accomplishing this. There are so many resources available and when we connect this with their interests we can accomplish a lot. I really like to focus on the application of math. I was never really told how math can be applied to everyday life when I was younger and when teachers are in the process of achieving long-term engagement, it is essential to tie math to real life. There are many effective strategies for accomplishing this such as interviewing parents and other family members to learn how they use math in their careers, playing Fantasy Football with your classes, and talking about how math is used in athletics. I always love to start a discussion and listen to how students realize they use math when playing sports, shopping, cooking, and playing games. The connection to real-life gives them a reason to want to reach their full potential in math class.
The INTELLIGENCE category is another integral piece of the E.P.I.C. structure. When attempting to achieve long-term, Total Math Engagement, teachers need to identify how each child learns best in math class, ensure that there is a conceptual understanding of each math topic, ask effective questions, and use assessment to guide instruction. As a 5th grade teacher, I make it my goal that all of my students have a conceptual understanding of each math concept that it being taught. If the students understand, they will be engaged. The process that I follow when introducing a new concept is to begin with the concrete stage so my students can use manipulative. We then progress to the pictorial stage in which each child can represent a difficult concept using pictures. After that is mastered, my students are expected to share what they know about this concept verbally. Algorithms and symbols come into play in the symbolic stage and once students are proficient with this, they will begin to apply and transfer this concept to other areas and real-life. Many of these stages are only used in younger grades, yet they can really keep all students engaged in math class.
The final stage of this E.P.I.C. structure is CLIMATE. This stage includes MATHxiety, self-efficacy, routines, and the classroom environment. All of these are equally important when attempting to engage the disengaged. I would like to address the self-efficacy aspect of this for our purposes today. Self-efficacy is a student’s connection to a success or failure with a math concept or task. When a student’s self-efficacy increases, so too does their cognitive engagement. I was the 1994 World Champion of Unicycling. When I was successful, I was doing stunts on my unicycle that were within my range of ability. I took my time. I was patient. I didn’t try to do things that I was not ready for. I built a foundation and developed off of that. It is essential to do the same thing with our math students. Teachers need to increase the self-efficacy of each child by providing tasks within their math ability level. This is a perfect opportunity to use Problem-Based Learning and Project-Based Learning because these both involve multiple stages. It is a process and the teachers can guide the students as they work. Mistakes along the way can be addressed and that will lead to a quality final product that each child will be confident in and proud of.
There you have it. I have shared my E.P.I.C. model of Total Math Engagement. Teachers and administrators need to see the importance of developing a common language and implementation of this structure. With consistency and understanding this will be a pivotal movement in math education. There are way too many students who are like I was as a student. They don’t get it. They don’t care. They don’t see they don’t see the importance of math. This will ultimately lead to many students with potential avoiding classes and college majors based on which math classes they will be required to take. By using this plan, teachers can make a difference in the lives of countless math students. I am proud to have assembled this plan because it has increased the confidence in my math students, raised test scores, and given me time to teach beyond the standards and more importantly, beyond the four walls of the classroom.