Rookie Year: Day 157 Or Big Puzzle

I am running out of gas.

I am struggling to find my own motivation, let alone motivation to get 60 other people to engage and try in this final week before the EOC. It’s draining to have to be the motivation for someone else. I just don’t have enough in me at this point in the year. I have been doing review and practice activities, but some of my students seem to have given up. Even the ones that are on the cusp of passing are uninterested in focusing and it has nothing to do with spinners. I find this very frustrating but then I also feel guilty if I try to emotionally disconnect. At this point in the year it feels like I am not encouraging those students to learn but to simply cooperate, and frankly I barely have the energy for that. Classroom management has always been the most draining aspect of this job for me and that has remained true even as I saw improvement in my skill.

However I did have a wonderful conversation about magic squares with a few of my students in a middle block. They had been working hard the entire time and when there was about 15 minutes left they complained to me that they were tired. And it was a totally fair complaint. They had done a lot.

It started when one of them said “Mr. Belcher, math is like this giant puzzle that you are trying to figure out but you don’t have all the pieces,” which I thought was a great description. I shared something about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems in very general terms. In retrospect I should have asked her to expand some more on what she meant by that, but I got excited. These two girls are always willing to discuss mathematical ideas with me and do a great job of wrestling with big concepts that I throw at them. I haven’t told them this, but I am trying to pique their interest in being math majors, especially because they are not students who would be considered “typical” for that path. They are some of my best students even though they don’t have the highest grades.

So I put a mostly completed 3×3 magic square on the board and asked them to finish it, explaining how it worked, which they grasped quickly. Then I put a 4×4 and I asked them to complete it from scratch. I was very pleased with the strategies they came up with immediately. I had told them the rows for a 4×4 have to add to 34. With no prompting at all after that, they decided that since 34/2 they would try to make 17 in two different ways across a row and then build from there.

What an interesting strategy! The bell rang before they could finish the square but they seemed to enjoy tackling the problem and I enjoyed helping them. But I also felt discouraged. I want to figure out how to make every day and every activity like that for ALL of my students, but I don’t see how to do that within the context I teach. I can make headway on some days and for some topics, but overall it feels as though the standards and expectations that are placed in math class in public school prevent that environment.

Working through this year I have tried to write and teach lessons that present math as a challenge or a puzzle to be figured out, but I didn’t always succeed. And at some points I didn’t try. Especially when I was tired or ran out of time.  have had this lingering suspicion that a lot of what is done in math classrooms is done because it is what is easiest. That’s not a judgement, I just told you I found myself doing that at points this year.

So things I have been trying this year but need to revisit and improve for next year:

  • How can I make all of my lessons in the spirit of that magic square and still fit within the context that my job exists in? (And is that possible to do?)
  • Where is the balance between making those lessons and not burning out from the amount of effort it takes? (Avoiding sliding into the “easy” lessons.)
  • What does good classroom management look like that doesn’t make me feel as though I have to be the motivation and focus for 60 other people and myself all at once? (How can I adjust to the fact that some students aren’t as motivated as i would like them to be or as much as they need to be to pass?)

There’s probably more but my head is feeling a little clouded right now and I can’t think of anything else.

Thanks for reading.



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