I want my middle school students to be successful in mathematics, but I also want them to fall in love with mathematics.
Some students are naturally inclined to really enjoy "traditional" mathematics; they are efficient and accurate at arithmetic, easily notice patterns, or might enjoy trying to solve new problems that stretch their knowledge base. Other students, however, don't feel that same connection to traditional school mathematics. It might be due to a lack of success in past math classes or a familial disdain for mathematics passed on from their parents, but there exists in every middle school students who are not inclined to love the type of mathematics that they are likely to see every day in their math classroom. I still want to reach those students and help them enjoy mathematics; I just find that I have to approach it from a different, more non-traditional angle.
My badging system has helped to bridge that gap with some of my middle school students. On my blog (www.pre-algebra.info) I have created over 100 articles and separated them into categories. Each blog post explains how a student can earn a "badge" for that post; opportunities range from reading an article and answering questions about it, to doing an art project, to solving a math problem. Students must earn 15 "badges" over the course of a year. Topics range from "Math and Beauty", "Math in History", "Math Equity and Culture", "Sports Analytics", "Problem Solving", "Data Representation", and more.
Students have a lot of freedom to decide how to approach these badges. Some students follow the strands entirely; some of my more athletically inclined students will do every single badge under the "Sports Analytics" tag while some of my more civic-minded students will complete all of the badges marked as "Math, Equity, and Culture." Other students simply scan the blog until they find something that strikes their fancy or a headline that grabs their attention, not really caring about the article's official category designation. The important thing is that I never dictate what badges students must complete. Students have complete freedom in deciding how they will interact with mathematics, empowering them to see how the concepts we're learning in the more traditional part of our class apply to their own areas of interest.
My Twitter feed, my blogroll, the #MTBoS and #iteachmath communities, and the new MyNCTM online community have all been invaluable resources in creating and curating a large and diverse collection of non-traditional math activities appropriate for middle grade learners.
While the badging system has had the desired impact on in-class engagement, there have been some other unintended positive side-effects as well. Students are much more likely to converse with their parents about mathematics when it centers around a topic they already love, it turns out. Because many of these topics have a more natural overlap with other academic subjects, students are finding different ways to use what they're learning in math class to engage their other academic classes as well.
Over the next few weeks, I will do a deeper dive into some of the topic strands mentioned above. Specific badges will be examined, including the motivation behind certain posts and tasks and what I hope students will learn from each activity. Exemplary student responses will also be included, and ways to extend the concepts explored in some of these badges into more traditional middle grade mathematics coursework.
Non-traditional mathematical studies can be used to "hook" kids on math, and thereby increase engagement in the more traditional, standards-based parts of math class. I hope you'll check out the collection of blog posts at www.pre-algebra.info, and consider curating or creating your own list of ideas to get students engaged with non-curricular uses of mathematics. Visit back in a couple of weeks when we take our first deep dive into one of the topic strands ("Math, Equity & Culture"). See you then!#MiddleSchool