The Math Challenge Lady

Ok class, do you remember who this is?  
“Mrs Sandford – the Math Challenge Lady!” the kiddos chant in singsong unison.
Yup – that’s me.  I smile. 

I wasn’t always the Math Challenge Lady but this has been a strange year for everyone.  For me, it has been different since I am in a new role as a Junior High Math Coach.  Instead of focusing my attention on my own classes of thirty or so grade 7 and 8 math students as I had for two decades as a classroom teacher, I am assigned to schools that request a coach.  For about 5 weeks at a time, I work alongside three math teachers in their classrooms, with their students, toward their goals.  My new role, collaborating with other educators in pursuit of student achievement, has been incredible.  I have learned from and with some amazing teachers and been welcomed into rich, exciting, unique, and special learning communities.  I feel like I am making an impact – but it is different.

Those who know me will recognize that not having my own class this year is a difficult adjustment.  I miss both the room and the wonderful personalities that fill it.  I spend a lot of time and energy creating a physical space that is welcoming, comfortable, creative and interesting.  I want students to relax when they enter, have something fun and inspiring to look at, and feel like it is their room too.  Then comes the atmosphere.  Many kids have a visceral reaction to mathematics.  Love or hate or fear.  I want to expand that to include joy and curiosity, and provide experiences that bring intense satisfaction.  And I want students to want to be there.  I work really hard to build trust and create a supportive and collaborative community of learners.  This effort and attention pays huge dividends. 
I get to witness awesomeness, growth, independence, and persistence.  I get to observe vibrant youngsters figuring out who they are and maybe even play a role in how they see themselves.  And ok – I teach junior high so I witness a lot of other things too!  But the overall feeling I pursue and relish is that quiet satisfaction that comes when you see young minds buying in; when kids feel safe enough to try, to persist, to give a task their best shot. When you are present for that moment when a child has figured something out; when the lightbulb goes on…it’s pretty special. 
I need those moments. It’s why I became a teacher.  They come because I work hard to create the conditions under which they are possible.  My new position found me in a supporting role.  Would I still have those moments?  

As a classroom teacher, my very first day had to have a special math activity.  Something to set the tone for how things were going to operate on my watch.  Lots of deep thinking, conversations, revising, connecting.  An activity that guaranteed participation.  Easy enough to begin for those tentative or reluctant students but perplexing enough to be challenging for the confident.  We’d make mistakes together and learn from mistakes together.  We would have this first shared experience as a new community of learners and begin our year-long math journey.  Together. 
I didn’t know how to begin a school year without it.  Maybe I didn’t have to…maybe I just had to think bigger.  Expand that community of learners school wide.

I was lucky enough to have my first coaching placement at the school I have worked at for a gazillion years – Sackville Heights Junior High.  Best school there is.  When I asked teachers if a weekly school wide math challenge was something they might let me pursue – it was greeted with open arms.  I set right to work.  Each week, I created a math challenge, introduced it to classes with my coaching partner, and students had the week to complete their best work.   Winning classroom teams were awarded, we showcased some math awesomeness and tried to promote some math play and engagement on a larger scale.  I started to feel it – some sparks!  Flickers of interest in teachers as well as in students.  Joyful math moments!  It was still possible in this role!  The concept, however, wasn’t without issues.  Making time to introduce and work on the challenges was tricky for teachers.  So was the team idea.  With the stress of teaching during a pandemic, the last thing I wanted was for teachers to feel pressure to participate or to have one more item to juggle, schedule, or consider.  When my coaching block wrapped up and I moved on to another school, I decided to let the weekly challenge idea go.

Months later, I found myself back at my home away from home:  Sackville Heights Junior High.  As I walked into the building that first day back, students were stopping me asking if the weekly math challenges were going to start up again. I was surprised and excited.  Impact.  Interest.  Curiosity.  I didn’t imagine it!  But how could I promote this joyful math without encroaching on time needed for curriculum outcomes?  How could I make it optional, no pressure, but open and welcome to all?  

My solution?  I created a Weekly Math Challenge Google Classroom.  Kids – join if you like!  I remember sitting in front of the computer screen after I put in the morning announcements word of its existence.  I stared at the students section of my new Google Classroom. Would anyone join?  (Refresh)  How much of this math joy was my own imagination?  (Refresh) I needn’t have worried.  Currently 207 young mathematicians check out my weekly challenges and many submit ideas for feedback.  I get random inquiries about possible solutions and requests for hints on Saturday nights, Sunday mornings before dawn, and even during our Spring Break.  Math for fun.  Participation by choice.  Best marking I have ever done.

I’m still figuring out this coaching gig.  I’m not as great at working with grown-ups (yet) but I’m a learner too.  I’ll get there…I have to be patient with myself.  And my need to create and be present for those magical math moments?  Maybe it will be enough to help other teachers spark a little math joy in their students.  Maybe not.  But until I can figure that out  – I’ll be the Math Challenge Lady.  Wondering where to find me?  Just look for the sparks.

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