Free Your Mind: How Students Challenge the Narrative by Challenging Themselves
At Ketcham Elementary School, where 100 percent of students are on free lunch programs and one-fifth are considered homeless, Milton Bryant is determined to give his fourth- and fifth-grade math students access to the same challenging and inspiring lessons as those in more affluent parts of the city. This is how he ensures that they will have the skills and capabilities to take charge of their own futures. In Mr. B’s class, students question everything, think deeply about how they arrived at their answers, and apply new knowledge to their daily lives. In his essay, Bryant describes how he invests every student in conceptual thinking through strong relationships, jumbo cookies, and impromptu field trips.
Imagine growing up in one of the most historic communities in our country—a neighborhood full of museums, tranquil river trails, and picturesque parks. Some of the most powerful people in our nation can be seen jogging or playing baseball nearby. Now imagine having your potential written off because your address is on the east side of the same river trail, where opportunities are limited and expectations about your capabilities are lowered. When you go to school, you’re taught what to do—not how to think.
Those class dynamics are the reality for many of my students. Their innate talents go unrecognized by people from more privileged neighborhoods, some who have the audacity to ask: “Can any good come from Anacostia?”
I teach in my community to destroy that false narrative. We believe the good is already in Anacostia. My class is a joyful place that requires students to be inquisitive, thoughtful, and creative. Just like students on the west side, my students practice synthesizing information, evaluating evidence, and making judgments—skills that will help them make better decisions in school and in the community.
Many students enter my class with the idea that math class is about right and wrong. They do not consider themselves “math people.” That mindset is exactly what I work to tear down by creating a culture that values questioning and thinking over correct or incorrect answers. My room is plastered with quotes that have shaped my beliefs about the goal of education—and how I feel about life. I introduce one by Piaget at the beginning of the school year: “The principal goal of education is to create individuals who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what others have done.”
Students soon realize that the goal of our class isn’t about helping them become computers—it’s about teaching them to become independent thinkers. My mission is to help them free their minds and question everything until they understand the concepts behind the numbers. I want students to look at all reasonable answers as hypotheses that need to be tested, asking and answering questions and providing evidence to support claims along the way.
My mission is to help them free their minds and question everything until they understand the concepts behind the numbers.
At first my students are surprised when they are met with question after question about why they think this, asked to provide rationales for that, and left with questions about why their thinking changed after going through the exercise. But after the first few weeks, another quote begins to resonate with my students: “Failure is not permanent, unless you quit.”
If they get frustrated, I relate it back to video games. “So what happens when you are playing a video game and you die?” I ask.
Students quickly respond back that they keep trying and attempt to do different things until they pass.
“In the past, why have you quit when a ‘hard’ problem is presented to you in school?” I ask.
After a few moments of silence, a student speaks up: “Well, because in school, when you get things wrong, that’s it!”
Not in my class. Just like in video games, it’s okay to take risks and be incorrect. That is how we learn—and eventually move on to the next level.
That sense of grit and determination will set them up for success in our fractions unit. Students bake brownies and Rice Krispies Treats, build model houses, and make fraction guide books for lower grades—projects that feel relevant to their daily lives while tapping into rigorous math skills.
One of our first lessons involves equal sharing—and jumbo cookies. At one table, five students share two cookies. While they discuss, I walk around, jotting notes, asking questions, or asking people to prove their statements. I may shift students between groups based on their levels of understanding, or I may assign them to be the leader for the scenario.
“I don’t get it,” Tahnya says. “It just doesn’t make sense on how to determine the amount each person would receive.”
Her tablemates figure out the concept and begin to question Tahnya. “So what happens when you split the cookies up amongst the group?” asks Morgan. Tahnya looks with a blank stare. Morgan regroups and asks, “Would the pieces split be the same size as the cookie or be smaller than the cookie?”
“The pieces would be smaller than the cookie,” Tahnya says, “because the cookie is a whole and it would be a piece of the whole.”
Morgan follows up: “So what operations do we use with decreasing values when talking about whole numbers?”
I listen in as Tahnya explains that the correct operation would be division. The girls complete the problem and determine that 2 divided by 5 = 2/5. Each student gets 40 percent of a cookie—or two pieces that are 1/5 in size.
I haven’t even taught that part of the unit yet. They discovered this on their own because they questioned everything—and they can prove it with a conceptual model. Instead of just telling Tahnya the answer, Morgan helped her figure out the problem for herself, deepening her own understanding along the way.
After their discussion, I ask those girls to support other tables as facilitators, asking probing questions to other students. That frees me up to move around, listen in and jot down more questions, misconceptions, and new understandings to prepare for the class discussion.
Tahnya leads. I ask a few clarifying questions to force her to clear up her thoughts and potentially help others who may still be confused. We open the floor for questions for Tahnya and her table mates and have an open discussion about why they choose their methods.
Creating this environment isn’t easy. It takes intentional planning to create lessons that let everyone grow more. It takes me talking less and my students talking more. I can’t plan for everything, but I can actively listen to everyone—and encourage them to question everything—even in the process of buying snacks at 7-Eleven.
One day last year, I decide to take an impromptu field trip to 7-Eleven to help students solidify their understanding of estimates, rounding, and exact numbers. As we walk over, I tell students they can pick one item of their choice and I will pay for it if they can correctly estimate the total cost of the bill—and then add on tax mentally to get a ballpark figure.
Entering 7-Eleven, the students scatter across the store, grabbing sodas, cookies, chips, and other snacks.
“Mr. B, how do we know what the taxes are?”
“Easy,” I say, “We’re in DC, so it’s 10 percent, or 1/10 additional on top of the total cost.”
I hear some of the students explain to their peers what that means. As the items cross the scanner, I call out the price. All around the store, the students are focused like lasers, doing their best to round and then calculate mentally.
On our walk back, I listen to multiple estimates from students and their rationales.
“Well it has to be around $40,” says William.
“No it’s more like $35.50, if you add tax,” says Lamonte.
“What about no tax?” I ask, challenging him to re-estimate.
Once back at the school we place all items up front. I have the students provide me with their original mental answer, and tell them that I will collect their new written estimate shortly. I tell the students all the prices and which items were buy one get one free or discounted. Immediately, students start recalculating their totals. Bre and Taylor ask if they can use the white boards. I provide them for everyone, but tell them not to give exact figures yet.
“My first estimate must be wrong,” Kamarra tells Cormya. “My new estimate is different.”
“You may have estimated differently each time,” Cormya says. “So that could have been why you have different answers.”
The final portion of the computation part of the lesson is to find the exact total. Students go back and forth about the different totals.
Tye’zeaha told the boys, “Well my answer is different because of tax. I put tax on my total by doing this.”
“How do you know that?” the other boys ask, questioning everything.
“10 percent would basically be $0.10 on a dollar and we can get the total by adding on $0.10 for every dollar spent. So if we spent $10 you just add on $0.10, ten times which equals $1.00.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just multiply the number by 1/10?” asks another student.
The students laugh, having arrived at a new solution through their own questioning: “Yeah, let’s try that.”
Once groups submit their exact answers, we discuss why the answers for the exact, estimated, and mental estimate are all different. I finish by asking them what “math skills” we used that are great for the real world. Hands shoot up in the air.
“Hey Mr. B, we need to know how to estimate.”
Janasia fires out: “We need to know about rounding.”
Taylor goes a little deeper: “You need to understand which unit rounds you closest to exact.”
“You have to know which way of estimating is most efficient for the activity,” Malayka says.
They know that these are math lessons—but the greater lesson is about critical thinking and applying rigorous reasoning skills to life outside of school. Rigorous academics—and the freedom for educators to make lessons relevant to their students—should be the same in any neighborhood. When we teach some students what to do—instead of how to think—we keep them enslaved within their own minds, as opposed to becoming liberators of their community.
Tahnya, who came to my class with no confidence in math, puts it best: “It’s about applying your thoughts and really thinking about what you are being asked.”
When students are thinkers, they are no longer doing well to please me or their parents, but to show everyone that children from this community are just as capable as students from more affluent neighborhoods. Not only will they excel as individuals, but they motivate and push the next group of students to excel—and shift this notion of what kids from the east side of the river can do.
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