Usually when I tell people that I teach middle school math, I’m met with sympathetic and somewhat terrified looks. It’s the same look I give kindergarten teachers. It’s not easy, but I love my job. Middle school students are funny, awkward, and yes, sweet. I enjoy teaching math, but even after 11 years, I’ve never been totally satisfied with the way I do it.
Every year I struggle with two things: How to motivate a room full of kids who represent a wide range of skill and ability, and how to make my classes not boring. I’ve taught four different curricula, used problems of the month, music, stories, jokes, manipulatives, videos, games, brain breaks, MARS tasks, three act tasks, number talks, interactive notebooks, art projects, and just about anything else you can think of. Despite this, I couldn’t break from a structure heavy on note-taking, whole class instruction, and homework. I was teaching mostly to the middle range of students, hoping that the struggling students would catch up and the accelerated students would be patient.
This structure needed to change, but I couldn’t see a way forward. Then last year, I observed workshop-style math classes at my daughter’s school in Wellington, New Zealand. This model uses small group minilessons, partner work, and individual practice—whole class instruction is almost nonexistent. It takes advantage of students’ social nature and desire for independence. Students have plenty of autonomy— they set their own schedules, self-assess, choose partners, and reflect daily on their learning. They are active throughout the class, spending most of their time in engaged in problem solving and discussion rather than note-taking. They never take work home. This, I decided, was how I wanted to teach math. I returned from New Zealand excited to test out the workshop model with my seventh-grade students.
I’m now in the second month of school and have implemented the workshop model with my three seventh-grade classes. There have been a few bumps, but I’m happy overall. I can’t imagine returning to the old structure. That said, I have six more months paid on my WordPress account. I plan to use them to chronicle my experiences, share this experiment with other teachers, and solicit ideas for how to make this work better. Please feel free to comment or share with others who might be interested.