Making Math Meaningful

For elementary instructors Jeff Freiberg and Melissa Woodbridge, teaching students the joy of math means bringing their students’ lived experiences into instruction. “I try to be very intentional about creating math concepts that students can connect and relate to within their own lives,” explains Freiberg.

Jeff Freiberg
Jeff Freiberg
Melissa Woodbridge
Melissa Woodbridge

Connecting math to real life is a way for students to further explore their worlds. Woodbridge adds, “So often kids just learn to take things at face value. They just accept math ‘rules’, without ever questioning them. One thing I’ve been implementing into my instruction is the question ‘Why?’ ‘Why does that work?’ And that sparks a discussion where students create their own story problems and context. It gives them ownership over their own learning.”

Math-lovers from an early age, both Freiberg and Woodbridge believe positive math experiences built the confidence necessary to fully explore math both as students, and now instructors teaching. “Math was always my favorite part of the academic day,” explains Freiberg. “I was very confident in it, and I always enjoyed talking math problems, and converting them into sports scenarios in my head.” Woodbridge adds, “I was someone who found computation very easy. I try to empathize with my students who have different experiences and skillsets. I focus on teaching math so it’s not so focused on procedural fluency and more on conceptual understanding.” Taking this approach builds confidence in student learning and creates a strong foundation for mathematical understanding in later grades.

From telling time and counting coins, to reading scoreboards and picking teams at recess, math can be found everywhere—an undercurrent in nearly every aspect daily life. Both Freiberg and Woodbridge recognize this and, much to the delight of their students, have mastered the art of teaching math from an accessible, and relatable standpoint.

“Culturally responsive teaching doesn’t come from a curriculum,” states Freiberg. “This fellowship is reminding me to try to focus on making math relevant within the classroom, whether that’s through math discussions during recess, school lunch, even determining how many more minutes until the next recess with my students.”

Despite having to teach within unprecedented circumstances, Woodbridge chooses to continually evaluate her instructional approach through the fellowship. “It can feel especially difficult to take the time to build math foundations, rather than take shortcuts—to teach questions rather than just the ‘right’ answer. But this fellowship is offering gimmers of hope, that I can still do this, I can tweak my instruction just a little bit at a time, to build that conceptual understanding and provide those multiple access points.”

Now more so than ever, these access points—between students’ lived experiences and the mathematical equations facing them—are crucial. Taking the time to learn students’ unique strengths and creating personal connections to them is perhaps the first step in fostering a sense of wonder and joy around math.

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