Rounding Up Season 2 | Episode 1 – Practical Ways to Build Strengths-based Math Classrooms
Guest: Beth Kobett
Mike Wallus: What if it were possible to capture all of the words teachers said or thought about students and put them in word clouds that hovered over each student throughout the day? What impact might the words in the clouds have on students’ learning experience? This is the question that Beth Kobett and Karen Karp pose to start their book about strengths-based teaching and learning. Today on the podcast, we're talking about practices that support strengths-based teaching and learning and ways educators can implement them in their classrooms.
Mike: Hey, Beth, welcome to the podcast.
Beth Kobett: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here, Mike.
Mike: So, there's a paragraph at the start of the book that you wrote with Karen Karp. You said: ‘As teachers of mathematics, we've been taught that our role is to diagnose, eradicate, and erase students' misconceptions. We've been taught to focus on the challenges in students' work rather than recognizing the knowledge and expertise that exist within the learner.’ This really stopped me in my tracks, and it had me thinking about how I viewed my role as a classroom teacher and how I saw my students’ work. I think I just want to start with the question, ‘Why start there, Beth?’
Beth: Well, I think it has a lot to do with our identity as teachers, that we are fixers and changers and that students come to us, and we have to do something. And we have to change them and make sure that they learn a body of knowledge, which is absolutely important. But within that, if we dig a little bit deeper, is this notion of fixing this idea that, ‘Oh my goodness, they don't know this.’ And we have to really attend to the ways in which we talk about it, right? For example, ‘My students aren't ready. My students don't know this.’ And what we began noticing was all this deficit language for what was really very normal. When you show up in second grade, guess what? There's lots of things you know, and lots of things you're going to learn. And that's absolutely the job of a teacher and a student to navigate. So, that really helped us think about the ways in which we were entering into conversations with all kinds of people; teachers, families, leadership, and so on, so that we could attend to that. And it would help us think about our teaching in different ways.
Mike: So, let's help listeners build a counter-narrative. How would you describe what it means to take a strengths-based approach to teaching and learning? And what might that mean in someone's daily practice?
Beth: So, we can look at it globally or instructionally. Like, I'm getting ready to teach this particular lesson in this class. And the counter-narrative is, ‘What do they know? What have they been showing me?’ So, for example, I'm getting ready to teach place value to second-graders, and I want to think about all the things that they've already done that I know that they've done. They've been grouping and counting and probably making lots of collections of 10 and so on. And so, I want to think about drawing on their experiences, A. Or B, going in and providing an experience that will reactivate all those prior experiences that they've had and enable students to say, ‘Oh yeah, I've done this before. I've made sets or groups of 10 before.’ So, let's talk about what that is, what the names of it, why it's so important, and let's identify tasks that will just really engage them in ways that help them understand that they do bring a lot of knowledge into it. And sometimes we say things so well intentioned, like, ‘This is going to be hard, and you probably haven't thought about this yet.’ And so, we sort of set everybody on edge in ways that set it's going to be hard, which means, ‘That's bad.’ It's going to be hard, which means, ‘You don't know this yet.’ Well, why don't we turn tha