The SOLUTION to your Math PROBLEM – and other easy language changes every educator (and parent) can make.

The words we use as educators are so important. Have you ever done the “Wrinkled Heart activity”. It’s a kindness lesson. Read the story Chrysanthemum, no matter the age of your learners or if you’ve read it before. Then give each person in your family or classroom a cut out heart. Have them wad the heart up into a ball and unroll it. It’s all wrinkled. See who can smooth it out again…it will never look like the fresh crisp heart they were handed. Words are powerful. Before you speak, think and be smart, it’s hard to fix a wrinkled heart. Feel free to download the free printable for this activity from our Curriculum Club. It includes a link to the book read aloud as well.

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If you would like to see the video that accompanies this blog post I have included it below. It is not a word for word transcript of the post, but mentions the same or similar language to use.

In our homes and classrooms we have a CAPTIVE audience. They listen to our every word. Every year I was so and so’s favorite teacher…until they went to 5th grade, and then he or she was their “favorite teacher”. But during my 180 days as favorite, it was vitally important that each and every student feel successful, safe, and loved.

The overall purpose of the educator is to guide learners. You can’t teach anyone anything honestly. You can only present the information, and the learner must absorb and apply the information. Everyone self educates. Everyone. So if you are a parent, or a classroom teacher, your job is to simply guide the day and keep kids safe. They have to do the learning. Here are the ways I guided my children and the students I encountered as a classroom teacher.

When I was in High School my freshman year, Mrs. Harris told me I was a Genius. I can’t even spell it (trust me the red squiggle came and I just had to fix it for this post) She had a magical way of teaching and relating to students that made me BELIEVE her. I liked Science for the first time in my life, because of the words she used. Funny thing, she called ANY student that went and asked her questions GENIUS. All of us. I wasn’t special, but it didn’t matter – she communicated that she BELIEVED in me. Try it. Start calling your kids Genius. (Don’t forget to look them in the eye and if possible touch them on the head or shoulder for personal connection.)I bet you will see a difference immediately in the quality of work you get.

Nice work Genius, next time remember to put your name on the paper.

Only a Genius like you would turn in this quality of work, thank you.

I’m impressed Genius.

And the magic of Genius is in this: Ask them who they think is a Genius. Likely they will say someone like Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton or even someone like Elon Musk. Then research their FAILURES. YUP even a GENIUS’ makes mistakes – so it is a believable statement that you call a child Genius.

You can also focus the praise on the WORK not the child. Think about “Good Dog” – “Bad Dog” – it’s not REALLY the dog that was good or bad, it is the behavior, the dog is actually clueless without the proper training. Children are the same. (Sorry if comparing kids to dogs is a bit much for you!) Their ACTIONS and the WORK they produce are where our focus should lie.

I’m impressed with how that turned out. vs You did great on that project.

Big question: what happens when they don’t do so great? There will be a reason, and nothing is likely WRONG with the child, but instead the mistake is a further opportunity for growth. Mistakes are the ONLY way to learn, but we as adults know this. Children fear mistakes. The language we use can help guide them passed the fear and into the comfort zone. That’s where true genius awaits.

If I could have been paid by the number of times I heard a child say “I can’t” or “It’s too hard”, I would have made up the salary difference between my private school salary and my public school equivalents! Where does that idea come from? Those words are banned in my home and my classroom. To help re-train their thoughts, I say: You can do hard things. Whenever a child says: I can’t or any equivalent statement, I tell them to try phrasing it another way (what is the REAL problem) and I encourage them by saying :You can do hard things.

So, what do we do when a child needs help? When they were learning to walk we held hands, removed obstacles, etc. Now as they continue to navigate through these hard things it is important to understand help vs doing. Coming out and simply blurting: Do you need help? that’s it, they do… the authority “thinks” they need help so they MUST need it right? Instead try: I’ll be at my desk if you need help. I always added the phrase, It is okay to interrupt whatever I am doing. I discovered sometimes learners were not asking for help even though I was always available because they didn’t want to bother me. Sweet things. I’ll be walking the room if you need help, just call my name if I don’t notice you.

I do look like I’m getting some serious work done here. This picture was taken by a student who was in charge of taking pictures as her class job!

Another common issue that would have increased my riches was “not understanding the instructions”. As a teacher in the trenches, this is a tough one. I have seen it used as an avoidance tactic equivalent to the “I have to go potty”. It’s amazing how they don’t understand, but haven’t even done one task. How do they *know* they don’t understand? Many times it goes back to HARD THINGS. The learner heard you, they *know* what to do, but not quite HOW to execute it. Instinct makes us want to say: I’ve already explained this, just try. I have used those words myself, because no one HAS to go to the bathroom during Math every day even when I teach Math at different times every day. SOMETHING is going on and it’s not a small bladder. What I choose to say instead is: Let me show you another way. I have gotten other teachers because I have run out of ways to explain. But I always find the solution to the underlying trigger for avoidance, or genuine misunderstanding. (Not always in one day mind you!)

Now, let’s think about the word PROBLEM. What is the first thing that comes to mind… something along the lines of a situation that needs to be worked out or solved… Does the word PROBLEM have a positive vibe or a negative vibe to it? Do you want to have a lot of problems to solve? I sure don’t! When it comes to Math however – that’s what we have – we have Math PROBLEMS – things that need to be worked out, Finding the solutions is a GOOD thing! Yet so many of our learners struggle with Math. What if we change the LANGUAGE we use surrounding Math?

Math is a subject I watched countless students struggle with by the time they arrived in my 4th grade classroom. They already saw Math as a “problem” and defined themselves as not good at it. (The I can’t syndrome!) Changing the language we use regarding math is critical! Just being a cheerleader and telling a learner they can do it, keep trying is not enough. They have PROBLEMS and we are helping them solve the wrong one!

Try assigning things like: Math Calculations (any of the traditional math operations). Whole different ball game. The official term is : MATH OPERATIONS. Play up the surgery play on words, we dig into math and like a surgeon, we operate and get to the solution… WHAT A DIFFERENCE!

Historically Math was called ciphering . The mathematical definition of ciphering is: to use figures in a mathematical process. (Miriam-Webster) It’s also related to writing and solving code – like a secret agent. Imagine your home or classroom filled with secret agents solving ciphers! What an exciting place…or you can get out your Math and work the problems.

It’s always been a MYSTERY to me why anyone would need that many watermelons, but hey – critical thinking skills are important. When learners are faced with what we know as “word problems” the YUCK-meter goes off the charts. Good strong readers turn into jello when faced with words and math mixed together. Just change the language – Give your learners a Sherlock Holmes hat and off they go to solve the Math Mystery of the day! I have a set of Math Mysteries to get you started. They can be used with students in as young as 2nd grade and as high as needed for training purposes.

Purchase our Math Mysteries by clicking the image and visiting Amped Up Learning.

A final thought on the words we use. In my classroom I stopped giving tests. Yup – you read that right, zero tests were given, I simply had students complete and activity called: Show What You Know. “Tomorrow we will have a {Show What You Know} over Chapters 5-7 in Charlotte’s Web.” We did them in every subject! I saw a dynamic change in my classroom. As a homeschooling mom I NEVER gave tests (or even show-what-you-knows). Working with my children one on one I had the feedback I needed to evaluate learning and make decisions as to curriculum adaptations, etc. But if you do use tests, or a charter school that requires tests, change the language surrounding the activity. As adults, you and I both know that I was able to clearly determine if Chapters 5-7 were comprehended based on the “Show What You Know Activity”. Good bye test anxiety, at least for the 180 days they were in my class.

Changing your language is intentional, and it takes TIME. Start slow, and stick with it. Remember you can do hard things. If you need any support for your schooling, or have other great ideas for language we use with children, please feel free to reach out. I would love to see your comments!

May your educational Journey Be Blessed!

Mrs. Crabtree

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Christy Gandara

Dedicated to being a Wife, Mother, Friend and Educator while I listen to God's call in my life. I blog to inspire others to be all they can be in whatever roles they are called to. I begin all I do with Gratitude and end by choosing Joy. - Thanks for joining me on my journey!

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