How can we promote mathematics play in more classrooms? What is within our power to make playfulness a norm in maths class? To be honest, there is no special magic necessary here. The strategies offered will not be especially new or profound. However, their effectiveness can be thought of as directly proportional to the commitment of teacher leaders to implement them consistently and with fidelity. Truthfully, it will take courage to disrupt the status quo.
First, we must become adept at planning with play in mind in our own classes and/or schools. Playful mathematics still puts student learning at the forefront of lessons. Through the use of multiple measures, including observations, closing questions, journal reflections, assessments, etc., teachers should be analyzing and comparing data with colleagues to assess the effectiveness of their instructional programs. Working in a PLC (Professional Learning Community usually consisting of teachers within the same content area and/or grade level) expands our capacity to plan for every student’s needs, as a team of teachers offers diverse perspectives and ways of seeing the maths we teach. Even for those with a naturally serious demeanor, intentionally providing students the opportunity to play with mathematical ideas, concepts, manipulatives, puzzles, and the like, can light a spark that ignites a passionate fire for learning in classrooms.
An option for making maths class more joyful, or at minimum feel so for those who still aren’t yet convinced of the intrinsic value of play, is to plan interdisciplinary units. At the primary level, this will merely require thoughtful planning and research on the interconnectedness of different subject areas to mathematics. For secondary teachers, this may mean stepping out of our comfort zones to work with teachers in other departments, such as the arts, science, social studies, technology/computer science, etc. Our students should not be the only people expected to take risks in mathematics teaching and learning.
Another method to grow playfulness as a mathematics classroom norm is to build our network of service and support. By attending events outside of your building, such as optional district PD and PLCs, and/or conferences and workshops in other districts and venues, (or conferences at the local, state, regional and national level, such as those associated with NCTM), teachers are exposed to more creative, inventive, culturally relevant and diverse perspectives. If you have ever changed sites, you are well aware of how vastly different school culture can be even within the same school district. Likely due to variations in site, student and staff needs and expectations, what may been seen as “the way” to do mathematics in one place can be the polar opposite in another. Furthermore, taking the plunge and engaging with social media centered around mathematics and its pedagogy provides access to a global network of educators. Twitter (suggested hashtags to follow are #iteachmath and #mtbos), Facebook, and Instagram, to say the least, offer a plethora of resources and ideas for playful, joyous maths teaching professional development. Teachers may choose to start a blog to reflect on their practice through the giving and receiving of feedback from other educators. These PLNs (professional learning networks) have the potential to grow a teacher’s practice exponentially in an astonishing short window of time.
Lastly, teachers are encouraged to get involved in “side gigs” as their time allows for a healthy work and home-life balance. Join state networks of educators. Present at local, state, regional, national and, possibly, international conferences. Securing funding may be a challenge at first, but try not to let finances mitigate your circumstances. Request that the administration fund all or part of the expenses. It is always surprising to hear how many teachers never bother to ask their administrator(s) for support in their growth and development as an educator. Teachers can also apply for scholarships and grants as they begin to work outside of their sites. Do what is necessary to find the financial support needed because, in the end, your continued development and the movement to bring more play to mathematics classrooms around the world are worth the investment!
The purpose of this series of blog posts was to inspire increasing playfulness, joy and appreciation for the aesthetics of mathematics in our classes. Students need us to be brave and rise to the challenge of simultaneously prioritizing their humanistic need for belonging, comfort and acceptance while providing equitable access to a quality mathematics education. Humanizing maths class is a powerful form of social justice work. Are you ready to play?