Three Arguments for a Mathematical “SSR”

I’m sure that at some point in your life you’ve either heard of or participated in sustained silent reading in school. The idea is that students simply spend a set amount of time reading anything they enjoy for an extended period of time. I remember doing it in middle and elementary school. Every English student in the high school in which I currently teach does it as well. In fact, since it’s implementation there has been a notable increase in our reading scores. This got me thinking….what would the mathematical equivalent of this look like and would it be valuable?

Choice

I think it might have a few components. One of the main premises of SSR is you get to choose what you read. In the realm of mathematics I don’t doubt that many students would need guidance in this area for a couple of reasons. First, many students see mathematics through the lens of their math books and previous math books that led to their current math book. This means that they are sheltered from a lot of math they might find interesting. Second many don’t know what doing math is like. For instance, have a look at this video by Vi Hart (who has one of my favorite Youtube Channels) in which by doodling she makes parabolas incredibly interesting. This is an exceptional example of where simply playing with mathematics can take you. Now, I understand that her mathematical background allowed her to draw and discuss parts of the video that would be over many student’s heads. The point is that there are many access points to mathematics that are both playful and creative. The teacher would have to front load some of the explanation for what constitutes mathematics, to broaden their horizons.

Being able to choose the mathematics students work on gives them some ownership of the content, even if it’s only for a small part of the week. Math catches a bad rep. Even certain students in my AP calculus would hesitate to brag about their love of math and a number of them don’t like math. I’m not contending that after implementing some sort of mathematical SSR that everyone will be running around jumping up and down about how great math is. I’m simply contending that if students view of mathematics broadens into something they think is enjoyable, the subject in general might be viewed in a better light. I would also hope that there would be a “spillover” effect in math class. This would stem from the notion that, although “what you’re telling me now isn’t particularly interesting, I can see that there are parts of this subject that are.” The goal would be that students would be (even slightly) more motivated to learn other mathematics.

Thinking

I constantly preach to my students that if you want to get better at something you have to work at it. No one wakes up one morning with the ability to shoot three pointers at 60%. Likewise, no one wakes up one morning with the ability to do and fully comprehend integral calculus. To this end, if we can get students thinking mathematically for a short period each week I believe that ultimately students would become better mathematical thinkers and problem solvers. Two of the critical components to the success of this is that a) students have enough time each week to make it worthwhile and b) students engage in activities that make them reason and use their logical thinking skills.

Focus

I don’t think I’m alone when I observe that many students in my class are trying to do math with a computer sitting next to them, lighting up every 15 seconds. This makes any kind of extended focus and concentration difficult. How are students supposed to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them” if their phone is constantly distracting them from what their work? To this end a mathematical SSR would be phone/distraction free. I’m not sure if English classrooms implement it this way, but I imagine they do. One of the goals of this would be that students get better at concentrating on problems for longer than a minute or two. My hope is that students would begin to see value in distraction free work. They might even increase their ability to focus.

Nuts and Bolts

A few things remain to be worked out. For instance, what are the guidelines for something mathematical. Vi Hart spent a bunch of time drawing parabolas but the result was much more mathematical than if most of my students did the same. Here’s a list of activities that, I think, would be fit this time nicely.

  • Logic Puzzles
  • Creating Desmos Art
  • Sudoku, Kakuro, etc.
  • Reading and playing games on Math Munch
  • Something they find interesting from (gasp) the textbook
  • Watching Youtube videos from approved Youtube channels (I’m not sold on this one…)
  • Maker Stuff (Little Bits, Arduino, etc.)
  • Logic Games
  • Games (Chess, Guillotine, etc.)
  • Coding
  • Others (If you shoot me ideas then I’d love to add them to the list…)

This time would be explicitly not for remediation. I can think of no worse way for a student to spend this time than being forced to do math they don’t find interesting and are already struggling with. I can see the temptation for a teacher to fill this chunk of time with remediation but that completely misses the point.

Results

I have to believe that the end result would be better mathematical understanding in general. I also think that (another gasp) test scores would go up as a result. Many standardized test questions test reasoning more than given math skills anyway. I have no research to prove this, I just think that if students do more mathematical thinking, their math skills will improve. And to be quite honest, if the results are simply more students improving their reasoning ability and gaining a new appreciation for mathematics then I’d deem it a success.

On a final note, I think it’s important that the teacher does this with the students. This models what is expected and gives the teacher some time to explore the subject that they love. It would contribute to a culture of mathematics in the classroom and sends a message to the students that this time is valuable to the teacher as well.

This is just an idea that’s been pinging around my head for several months and I’m finally getting it out. I’d really love to hear feedback on this, including but not limited to “this idea sucks because…”.

%22The essence of mathematics resides in its freedom.%22

5 Comments

  • Sam Morey Reply

    Zach,

    I love this idea and I have to come up with an idea for our enrichment time (45min on Wednesdays and Fridays) for the 4th making period of the year. I may have just found what I will do.

    I agree that students do not find much enjoyment in mathematics. And very few are even satisfied with solving problems, but rather they are happy they are one more problem closer to being done with math homework. I think this could be a way to help students connect mathematics with the things they enjoy in life.

    The only thing that I might add to the process is a sharing piece. If the part of the goal is to broaden students’ mathematical horizons then hearing what their peers are studying will be valuable as well.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Sam

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      Having time already carved out for enrichment is awesome. Since I’ve written this I’ve thought a lot about how to make it fit. Our English teachers spend about 60 minutes a week on SSR. They can decide when they want to do it (all in one day, over two days, etc.).

      I think the sharing piece is a good idea, it’s simply a matter of fitting it in (in regards to time). I could see maybe making it voluntary? Carving out some time for students to share that wanted to. Maybe encouraging some to share, even if it’s not in a formal way. I think it’s definitely worth trying.

  • Heather Reply

    Great idea! I like Sam’s suggestion for sharing out. I haven’t yet tried this, but our LMS (for me, Schoology), allows me to start a discussion thread where students can’t see what has already been posted until they post. I could imagine asking them to post, and then perhaps comment on two other posts. It could also flow into a classroom conversation.

  • Julie Wright Reply

    This is an intriguing idea. As I look at how many lessons I still need to teach this year, I wonder what would need to be dropped to fit it in, though. Maybe an alternative is to have some homework be like this? Or would that just make kids resentful of these activities? Maybe homework choice: conventional drill vs. your list?

    This list might need updating, but I had students at my arts-focus middle school read and do math on their own while their classmates took the Smarter Balanced assessment. (About 1/4 of them opted out, and had to be doing something quiet in the same room.) Lots of cool links here. I heart the Internet.

    http://msjwright2.blogspot.com/2015/05/math-you-can-see-art-nature-patterns.html

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      I’ve been thinking about the time thing a lot since writing this. I’m not sure I have an answer. I talked to our English teachers and they’re doing SSR for about 60 minutes a week. That’s almost a fifth of their instructional time which is obviously significant. So I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe once kids do this for a while they’ll be more engaged in math class, requiring less remediation and time to get through topics? That could be kind of “pie in the sky” though considering I have no research to support it. IF you come up with a solution let me know! 🙂

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