“98, 99…”

Second grader Jamal and I had worked for a full month — one-on-one, four days per week — to develop his sequencing skills and mental number line. Every time we made it to 100,or any other three-digit number, Jamal would predictably melt down. The melt down took different forms: some days he hid under the table, and on others he bolted from the room. Sometimes, I saw him furrow his brow as he angrily shouted out his refusal to continue the task. He ripped up papers he found on a nearby desk. Our session would come to an unceremonious close.

There was one constant: he was not going to go past 100. Ever.

Working with Jamal felt like trying to defuse a bomb. We had to work quickly and deliberately. For the first month, I broke down our 30-minute sessions into 5 minute chunks. Most of our routines centered on building our own 120 chart on the wall of the “math cave” (my affectionate name for the math specialist office/classroom). Every day, Jamal seemed to push his thinking a little bit further than he had the previous day.

…and then we would hit 100. Done.

My post about Celine sparked a conversation on twitter about gender and the manifestation of math anxiety. Celine expressed herself verbally – often with arresting clarity. Others shared stories about students, mostly girls, whose struggles in math class broke our hearts in similar ways.

Jamal, on the other hand, had a visceral response to math. He almost never used language to describe his experiences. During our sessions, I watched his face closely for his “tells” that he might be on the verge of exploding. It usually happened so quickly that it felt more like a flipped switch and less like the slow build of Celine’s frustration. There were a few root causes for Jamal’s melt downs, but the most predictable was his reaction to three-digit numbers.

But we can’t avoid three-digit numbers.

I feel like it is also important to mention that Jamal is a student in the METCO program, a voluntary busing program that sends students of color from Boston into the more affluent, predominantly white, suburbs. Every morning, he wakes up more than an hour before his classmates to board the METCO bus that winds through Boston streets before bringing him to our school. He eats breakfast in the school cafeteria before some of his classmates even begin their meals at home. Our school is fortunate to have a fair amount of racial diversity, but Jamal is one of only two black students in his second grade class.

js-extends-the-120-gridOver time, Jamal’s classroom teacher and I attempted to erode Jamal’s fear of 100. Every day, we asked him to look for and described patterns in place value, every day. I slowly increased the complexity of our routines, and Jamal’s classroom teacher added in some structured supports during workshop block, as well. After about a month, Jamal asked me if he could continue some of the patterns of the 120 chart on the wall. This was such an unusual request from him; I jumped atop one of the rickety chairs in the classroom to search for packing tape. I affixed long strips to the wall to create additional rows and columns.

…and Jamal continued to count by 10s. He neatly wrote 130, then 140, then 150. When asked to read the numbers, he said, “I don’t know. I mean, what’s that? Like… 150?” I can’t even remember how I responded, but I reached for my phone to photograph and record what happened next.

He continued down to 190, and then said, “100? No, we already passed 100. 110?”

For the month that followed, he inconsistently worked with numbers past 100, sometimes shutting down like he had in September. When he does shut down, I offer him the choice of taking a walk or playing a game like DragonBox on the iPad. He almost always chooses DragonBox.

Now, in March, he fluently and easily reads four digit numbers. (Truthfully, he was motivated to read his total number of coins collected in DragonBox. I’m fine with that.)

He has other triggers, now. When we tried to play a game that involved skip counting by 3s the other day, he crawled under the desk and said that he needed to “go somewhere important.” He ground the tip of a pencil into the floor.

He stubbornly refuses to use addition strategies other than counting all or counting on using either a manipulative or dots. “I think I’ll just do it my way,” he says.

img_3791The other day, we played a game that involved skip counting by 2s. I wrote down 98. “You’re turn.”

Without missing a beat, he wrote down 100, followed by 102. “Did you mean to give me the easy numbers?” He asked. He has an impressive long-term memory, but perhaps he does not remember his 100 angst? Maybe he has fully recovered?

I want to help my students reach their learning edge, and then push past it. For a student like Jamal, that means knowing him as a math learning as well as being well versed in his repertoire of emotional responses. I cannot rely on him giving me verbal clues or signals before his brain grinds to a halt.

What do we do when the fear of a mathematical topic or idea is so acute that it shuts down the student’s ability to learn? How do we help them push through these experiences? It is a luxury that I get to see Jamal one-on-one right now. What do we do if we are limited to the regular math block?

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