Cicely Woodard: Why I Want my Students to Argue about Math

Cicely Woodard teaches eighth-grade math at Rose Park Magnet Middle School

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher at Rose Park Magnet Middle School, spoke to the crowd immediately after Gov. Haslam unveiled Tennessee’s dramatic growth on the 2013 NAEP test. Here Cicely talks about how her classroom has changed in recent years, and why thinking about math in a new way is opening up doors for her students.

Whenever I am absent and my students have a substitute teacher, I return to school the next day only to get an earful of stories about what happened when I was away.  “She was so mean”, my eighth graders explain with looks of disgust on their faces.  “Mrs. Woodard, please take me with you next time.  I can’t believe that you left us here with her.  His mustache made me laugh, her hair was not quite right, her feet were too big.” On a recent absence I heard one complaint that took the cake.  One of my very studious female students looked me dead in the eye and said, “Mrs. Woodard we did our work and all, but she wouldn’t let us argue about math.”

I got chills.  I almost cried.  It was the perfect confirmation that the changes that I was making in the classroom were positively affecting my students.  You see arguing about math was that eighth grader’s way of describing what has become a very important part of the learning process.  My students start with a high level math task.  They have some private think time in which they determine what they feel is the most appropriate way to approach the task.  They compare their own personal solutions with that of a partner in the small group explore phase.  After that comes what she would describe as the argument.  In a whole class discussion, students present their ideas, justify their thinking with explanations, and critique the reasoning of others.  The goal is to get as many student voices heard as possible, while I facilitate a discussion allowing me to assess what they know and advance their thinking.

Cicely Woodard says she tries to push her math students beyond just the numbers every day.

In recent years, I have changed from just focusing on new skill acquisition, problem solving, and mental math to concentrating on finding a balance between skill fluency, application, and conceptual understanding.  Now not only do my students know how to do certain skills, but they also know when to use the skill and why it works.  All of this changes the rigor in the classroom and makes for a richer, more engaging learning environment.

The teacher and student roles in my classroom are very different now.  I have gone from planning activities to choosing high level tasks that are relevant and meaningful to their everyday lives. I have moved away from being the ultimate source of knowledge to now being the facilitator of high level thinking.  My students are no longer just passive listeners.  They are actively involved in the learning process, or as Jaelah would say, they are arguing about math.

With new standards comes higher expectations.  For me it has meant a change in mindset for myself and my students.  I have a new mantra; 100 percent of my students will master 100 percent of the concepts that I teach.  I know that it sounds crazy and unreasonable, and believe me it is a very difficult challenge.  But I have gained the trust of my students and built a relationship with them.  They know that I will not leave them in failure.  They know that I will re-teach, redo, and reassess until they get it.  They know that I will not let them fail.  Reaching that expectation starts with me simply believing that they all can think critically and reason at a deeper level.  There are no excuses anymore.  I can’t say to myself that she is not going to learn this concept because she has an exceptionality, or he is not going to be successful at this because he lives in poverty.  His mom died.  She is the main caregiver for her siblings.  None of these excuses are acceptable. I walk into the classroom everyday believing that they all can be victorious no matter what they have done in the past. I also had to change some of their minds, because many of them walk into class with an anxiety and dislike for math. In just a few weeks time though, I find myself pushing students out of the door! They just don’t want to leave. They enjoy math class just that much.

I am so proud of what Tennessee has done to help teachers to be prepared for all of these powerful changes, and I am so grateful that I get to be a part of a movement in education that embraces higher expectations and recognizes what is best for students. Though the work has not been easy, I am so excited to celebrate our recent success.  I am inspired to move forward and convinced that we must persist in expecting more so that our students will continue to achieve more!