I teach years 7, 8 and 9 mathematics. Math sucks, everyone knows that. It’s hard, it’s confusing, it’s boring, and everyone hates it. At least, that’s what students often think. Sometimes it takes a silly teacher to turn that around.
It was a Friday afternoon. I have year 7 math before lunch, then year 9 math after lunch followed directly by year 8 math. A whole Friday afternoon of math for someone who isn’t even trained in it.
I don’t know how to teach math other than how I learnt it myself – explicit teaching followed by extended individual practice, sometimes consulting with friends about the best approach.
I’m sure there is a plethora of math pedagogical approaches, but I simply haven’t had the training in them, or the time to explore them myself yet. Starting at a new school this year, there are many more important things I need to prioritise.
So to make my lessons a bit less dry and scary, I try to inject some silliness in there, some fun.
Fun in maths, who knew it was possible. And I don’t even use games.
Friday afternoon in our year 8 lesson, a small group of boys came into the classroom in extremely high spirits. They were all just so happy and nutty. We got through the explanation part of the lesson with no real fuss, but as soon as I got one of them up to work out a question on the board, hilarity ensued. The boy who stood up to write out his solution wasn’t too crash hot at writing on the board. His numbers just looked ridiculous. And his friend had absolutely no problem at all telling him exactly how silly his writing looked, calling out across the classroom. I was about to quash the potential conflict that I was sure was about to arise, but instead of getting annoyed at his friend, the boy at the board took a step back, looked at his writing, and burst out laughing. That made his friend laugh. And all of a sudden they were both laughing so hard at such a stupid thing that it set others off. In the matter of 10 seconds the whole class was laughing, and no one was really sure why. I couldn’t even help it myself.
I sent the board boy back to his seat, and as soon as he sat down he and his mate were hurling insults at each other.
“Your writing is so stupid. Look at that 9!”
“Yea, well your head is so big you can’t stand next to you in a photo because no one will see you.”
“Your head at the back is so big you can’t walk behind you because you’ll get knocked out!”
“You have an 11 finger forehead!”
You might think I should have stepped in at this point, but they were laughing so hard they could barely get the insults out. The girls sitting across the room were so confused at what was happening that they started laughing again, which made me laugh, which made the rest of the class laugh. Once again, we were all laughing at stupid stuff.
I tried to get the lesson back on track, but any time anyone did anything slightly out of the ordinary someone found it hilarious. They had a bad case of the giggles, to the point where some of them were crying.
I realised we were getting no where, so I decided to stop the lesson and give them a few minutes to get the silliness out of their systems a bit. During this time two other boys set up a wall with some rulers between them, because they kept getting in each other’s space. I overheard them talking about it, and thought one boy said “If you cross this line you’re not getting pregnant”. I was so confused I went over to them to clarify. What a mistake. When I asked if what I heard was correct, they started laughing so hard they weren’t making any noise. Which again set me off, and then the other students who were just starting to calm down. Eventually one of the two boys calmed down enough to say it was “not getting presents”. I told them I was relieved, and in another minute the class was settled enough to get back to work.
The rest of the lesson was a great success because they were all in such a good, silly mood. We continued to make silly jokes, particularly about people’s writing on the board (I suspect some of them were making their writing look silly on purpose).
Once they’d all gotten on to the practising part of the lesson, one of the ruler-barrier boys reached across the barrier and took the other’s calculator. He started to complain about it, so I stepped in and said, “Well look, now you’re not getting pregnant” in a disapproving voice. Again, my mistake. It took a good few minutes to get those two, and then the rest of the class, to stop laughing again.
In the end we got through all the work, and they were much more chatty than usual, asking for more help and becoming less annoyed at themselves if they got questions wrong. I didn’t mind, because I could see they were all doing the work and surprisingly not getting too distracted by their silliness. In fact it was usually me who stopped them working by saying something silly that they didn’t expect me to say, so it became instantly hilarious. They are comfortable enough with me now that I can tease them a little a crack lame jokes. They particularly like it when I tell them math is a serious subject and they are under no circumstances allowed to have fun or laugh.
As they were packing up one of the boys got everyone to stop so he could tell me something.
“Miss, you’re lessons are so chill but we actually get stuff done. Like, we muck around a lot but I actually get math now.”
I was so damn happy with that comment. The others agreed, saying how they like that they have fun in math and that I explain the work well enough for them to understand. Of course not every lesson could run like this, but for this lesson it just seemed to work. Usually I inject some humour and sarcasm into my explanations (“See this equation? Looks pretty stupid doesn’t it. It is stupid, but you just put the numbers in like this…”). I try to break the tension that usually creeps into the room, and show the students that math isn’t something to be feared. I quite often talk about how satisfying it is when you finally understand how to do something and you can just go on and do it.
I asked the class to put their hand up if they feel more comfortable with math now than they did last year, because I know many came into this year with big reservations to the subject, and every single hand went up.
I really can’t receive a higher compliment than that! Sometimes it just takes moments of silliness to make the lesson work.
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.