Sunday, May 19, 2013


How overcoming math anxiety can help your students with English

Now, just wait a minute Carissa. You are an English language teacher! Why are you reading about overcoming math anxiety? Why do you care about math?

Before anything else, I care about my students being successful in all subjects. I try to use a little of each subject to teach English. So from Spanish literature to mathematics my classes try to have it all. On the other hand, if I can help them with math, then they have more time to devote to other things (like English homework). Finally, It is VERY rare for a technique to be only helpful to one subject. If it is helpful to math teachers, I am sure I can find a way to apply it to my classes.

There is a lot in the book that I agree with, and some that I don’t. I am going to just pick out 5 main points:
1.       I agree that MANY of my students have math anxiety. I joke often that even though I teach English I always end up doing a few math lessons just so they can figure out their grades. They tend to clam up the moment they see a formula and grapple for their calculators when asked simple math question. Their lack of creativity in English tends to transfer to their math. For example, if I ask what the percentage 35/50 is, few of them will realize they can simply multiply it by two to get 70 faster than trying to divide 35/50 in their head. In short, yes I see that many students seem to have “math anxiety” and “math glasses” as pointed out by Zero.

2.       However, I strongly disagree with one of the main concepts of the book. He argues that math is the only subject that builds progressively. That is to say, in math if you don't learn something well in one unit (say multiplication) then the next unit (exponents) will be almost impossible to learn. His argument is if you miss a day of history (The importance of MLK in the civil rights movement) you’ll still be able to understand the next lesson (The importance of Rosa Parks in the civil rights movement). This argument can be applied to history, and perhaps occasionally English literature or Philosophy, but foreign languages, science, and much of philosophy are taught in a spiral fashion. This means that they repeat things, but are constantly adding new details. For example, the first year of Spanish you may learn: emotions in simple present tense. The next year you’ll learn emotions again, but this time you’ll learn more, perhaps some idioms and also a new verb form (I will be happy when I eat the burger, compared to I am happy). If you don’t know how to conjugate the present tense you are sure to struggle with the present perfect, present continuous, etc.

3.       There’s also a whole chapter on Bloom’s taxonomy. When I used to tutor for AVID one of the requirements was that students had to ask higher level questions. This was especially hard for them with math. All they wanted to know was, “What’s the answer?” This was against the rules however, they couldn’t just say, “What is x in 2x-y/3=4xy where y=4x3” they had to ask, “Explain why we use substitution to solve the problem,” or "Compare the different ways of solving the problem to find the one that best fits." I agree FULLY that Blooms taxonomy is KEY in English, math, science, etc. Don’t ask students, “What was the plot of The Body” ask, “What would happen if the story were set today instead of the 1960s” these questions will make students think more and help them really learn, not just memorize.

4.       Zero talks about scaffolding in a way I hadn’t thought of before. As a teacher I am used to thinking that scaffolding is what I do to help student understand topics. I don’t just tell students, “Write a topic sentence about The Body.” I say, “What animals do we see in the body” “What different things do they symbolize” “In your opinion what do the animals in The Body mean?” All of these questions lead them to more easily write a topic sentence. But Zero’s point is that this lures students into a false sense of security. They feel that writing a topic sentence is easy in class, but when left to do it alone at home they fail  The book states, “It can be a source of pretty high anxiety to believe that you are fully supported high in the air only to walk out of the classroom and realize that you are dangling from a precipice with no way to get back down.” I still plan on scaffolding but I will try to either continue scaffolding in home assignments or make sure they are confident without the scaffolding before the assignment is given.

5.       People learn better when they like the subject and see real world applications! This is important as teachers! It is why I often change the names in gap fills to reflect celebrities or have my students read articles from People and Maxim. Having students write essays is great, but they may find it more applicable to their lives to write cover letters, resumes, e-mails to their favorite band, or tweets for a company. Finding ways to make English applicable and enjoyable is harder that it seems, but it is a challenge that every teacher should take seriously.

The book is written by Zero Angel (his given name is Robert Richardson) who has been teaching math since 2005. You can see more of his work here and I’d suggest you check out the book if you (or your students) struggle in math, or you just want a different perspective of teaching students who may feel anxiety for your subject.

What do you think?  Do we scaffold too much? Should we be certain to make our class interesting? What else can we do?

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