Michael Flynn teaches second grade at the William E. Norris Elementary School in Southampton, MA and is an adjunct professor in the education department at Westfield State University. He was the 2008 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, a recipient of the 2009 National Education Association/Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, and a 2010 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
“You know what, Mr. Flynn? I don’t hate subtraction anymore!” Jessica proudly exclaimed at the end of a weeklong exploration of various subtraction strategies.
The week started off rocky for Jessica. When I wrote the problem 200-198 on the board and asked students to solve it mentally, panic ensued and she insisted it was impossible to solve without paper and pencil. When I asked why, she said she could not “borrow” in her head. Jessica was struggling because she had a very limited view of subtraction and relied on the traditional algorithm to solve problems. She needed a bridge between what she already knew and what she was now being asked to do.
I walked over and asked her to forget all about subtraction for the moment and just tell me what she knew about 198 and 200. She looked perplexed and shrugged her shoulders. After a moment, she told me they were big numbers. I smiled and asked her to tell me more. She looked up intently at the numbers on the board and said they were close to each other. I grinned and asked her how close. She furrowed her brow in concentration and said they were two numbers apart. She then looked at me in surprise and said, “It’s 2!”
That was the hook, the moment of clarity and understanding. Jessica’s eyes were now open to other ways of conceptualizing subtraction. From that point on, we explored different models and contexts to deepen her understanding of the operation. She developed flexible and efficient strategies to solve problems quickly and accurately. Most importantly, her confidence grew.
By Friday she was a different student because she had a week of opportunities to make sense of subtraction. I was able to provide her with experiences that helped take the mystery out of it because they connected to what she already knew and understood about the operation. This was not easy work and we struggled in the beginning, but that is what learning is about. We struggle a bit with new ideas, but with the right experiences and support we learn and grow.
The excitement in Jessica’s voice was palpable as she informed me she no longer hated subtraction and she was grinning from ear to ear. This was a very different Jessica than the one who walked into my morning tutoring session earlier that week. She was now energized, eager for more problems, and was the first to call out the correct answer when I put new mental math problem on the board.
I live for moments like this when a student becomes confident with something that was once overwhelming. These moments are common in our profession and they are one of the main reasons why I teach.