Three Things

I’m enjoying my first slow cup of coffee since the start of the new school year. My tired feet are enjoying their morning free of heels. My throat, scratchy from overuse, is relishing a day without the need for much in the way of vocalization. This, the first pause of the school year, is when I finally get a chance to get to know my students.

From almost my first year in the classroom, I’ve started the year with the same homework assignment. It’s simply titled Three Things.

Three Things

Please write in complete sentences.

What are three things you like about math?

What are three things you don’t like about math?

What are three things I should know about you?

It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Basic questions that should elicit basic responses. Yet, every year, the papers that turned in tell me more than you can imagine about the person behind the writing.

Of course, I learn the basics. I learn if they follow directions. I can tell if they struggle with communicating in writing. Some never even complete the assignment at all and I certainly learn important information from that! I discover who prefers algebra to geometry and who likes to perform computation (not me!). I find out cool facts about each of them that would not be revealed in class (these kids have some great taste in music and hobbies!).

But it goes way deeper.

I learn about their history, both with schooling and with math. Their attitude towards the subject and themselves is clear upon the page.

Some celebrate the challenge of math and discuss the joy of struggle followed by success. They realize that we all fail. They are not afraid to try and try again. They do see themselves as failures even when they fail.

Others share their frustrations when they do not understand something and they internalize the message, calling themselves “dumb” or “stupid” or “bad.” They see their failure as fixed. They are usually timid in class, afraid to try. Many will hide their discomfort behind behaviors, becoming the class clown or the “bad” kid. They would rather not try than to try and risk failing, adding yet another tally to negative view of themselves. When describing what I should know about them, they often say things like, “I try hard even when it seems like I don’t,” “I get upset when I don’t understand things” or “Even though I can be bad in class, I’m really a good kid.”  They want people to know that they are more than their grades. More than their failures.

Those are the kids I focus on from the beginning. Before I ever teach them how to graph a line, I have to reach them. I have to start to change their view of themselves, show them that they are smart and capable. Help them see that everybody struggles with something. Let them experience the pride and accomplishment that comes from hard work and perseverance.

These are the kids that believe that they can’t do math. And the thing is, they’re right. But only because they’re limited by that belief. I have to help them change their beliefs about themselves first. And then I can teach them anything.

It’s amazing to me how ingrained these internal messages can already be in a thirteen year old kid. Just imagine what ours, as adults, must be. What beliefs do you have about yourself that you have been carrying around since childhood? What things do you believe you’re bad at or simply can’t do? Are those beliefs accurate or are they self-fulfilling? Do you ever become the adult version of the class clown or the “bad” kid to hide your own insecurities and feelings of failure? Are you limited by your beliefs?

My homework for you is to complete the adult version of my Three Things assignment.

Please think in honest sentences.

What are three things you value in yourself?

What are three things you believe about yourself?

What are three ways you limit yourself?

Don’t worry; I won’t mark it late if it’s not in by Monday morning:)

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