By Amanda Mahn, Seton Hall University NJEA Preservice Ambassador

Let me be honest, I have never been good at math. After third grade—once math did not just consist of plugging in numbers in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division formulas—I started to struggle. I am currently a junior at Seton Hall University majoring in early special education and social and behavioral science. With the few math classes I’ve had to take in these majors, I still struggled.

In the spring semester of my sophomore year, I taught a third-grade math lesson at Far Hills Country Day School that was observed by one of my professors. I was nervous for many reasons, but the two main reasons were that math is not my strong suit and that my first observed lesson in the previous fall semester did not go as well as I would have hoped.

To settle the doubts I had about my upcoming observation, I decided to truly apply myself in math and mathematics instruction. In one of my courses, Teaching Math in the Classroom, I committed myself to taking excellent notes and to asking pointed questions about how to create a successful lesson.

Coincidentally, the professor I had for that course was the same professor who had supervised my earlier less-than-stellar lesson. She knew my weak spots and what I needed to work on, so I took her notes from my previous lesson and her notes in class and incorporated them into my new lesson. The most beneficial thing I took away from the course was that to make a lesson successful and engaging, you must incorporate the students’ interests. That changed the game for me.

At the time of my student teaching placement, all that my third-graders would talk about was “squishes,” which are soft toys that resemble animals, food and other objects of interest to children. So it was squishes that I incorporated into my lesson. The objective was for students to be able to estimate sums in word problems by rounding numbers to the nearest hundred and place the sums on a number line.

I started my lesson with an anecdote about how the family I have been babysitting has a lot of squishes just like the ones they had in their classroom.

“I need your help with estimating about how many squishes this family has,” I told them.

The students’ faces lit up immediately, not only because I was talking about squishes but because I wanted their help. Almost every student volunteered to come to the board and estimate the number of squishes this family had and place the value on the number line. I created guided practice experiences, partner worksheets and exit slips with word problems that included some of the students’ names. They smiled from ear to ear.

I ended this lesson with a completely different view of myself as an educator. I felt confident, successful and effective. This may sound a bit dramatic for a third-grade math lesson about rounding numbers to the nearest hundred, but it reinforced for me why I went into this profession. The smiles on the students’ faces made me believe that they had forgotten they were even in a math class.  They were just having fun. They were engaged, asking questions and eager to complete each problem handed to them.

I could not help but think about when I was their age and how I felt about math. My own third-grade experience with math caused me to question my intelligence from then until today. Now I wonder if my years-long lack of confidence in math could have been avoided if only I had had a teacher who took the time to get to know their students’ interests and incorporate them into their lessons. While I can’t change the past, I can change the future for students like me and incorporate their world into the classroom

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