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Students of Poverty

7 Strategies to Develop Math Mindsets for Students of Poverty

by Dr. Jim Ewing

The pre-service teachers in my math methods class tutor students of poverty. I hear them say to their students, “Dr. Ewing helped me have a math mindset and I want to do the same for you.”

Dr. Jim Ewing and Matt Buie

On October 14, 2016, I presented a workshop to teachers at Raguet Elementary School in Nacogdoches, Texas. Rather than meet with the all of the teachers, I met with each grade level from kindergarten to fifth grade throughout the day. One of my elementary education students, Matt Buie (right), served as co-presenter.

These are the strategies that we use with elementary students at a high-poverty school to develop their math mindsets:

1. We can facilitate students to have math mindsets by being passionate about math ourselves.
Like many elementary teaches, many of the elementary pre-service teachers that I teach have had negative experiences with math. My goal is to change my pre-service teachers’ mindsets so they can do the same for their students. The most effective way to accomplish is for me to walk my talk. I am passionate about math and it is contagious. By the end of the semester all of my students have math mindsets. See my testimonials. Every day we tutor, I stand by the door of the cafeteria and when the elementary students come into the cafeteria, I greet both the pre-service teachers and the elementary students with a smile.

2. Instead of calling students smart, we should praise our students for their effort.
We praise the students for trying to do the math. The pre-service teachers give specific compliments that relate to their students’ goals. One pre-service teacher said, “By working hard, even though this math is different, you are going to reach your goal of being a teacher.” Giving students specific compliments about working hard which relate to their own goals is more effective then telling them that they are smart.

3. Mistakes are learning opportunities.
There is less of an emphasis on getting the right answer. When the students do make mistakes, they are asked what they learned from this mistake.

4. We should strive to be culturally relevant and include what we learn about students’ of poverty communities in our math curriculum.
The first day, we interview our students to find out more about them. After knowing our students, we plan our lessons accordingly. In an attempt to make the math more relevant, we avoid asking questions that involve spending a lot of money.

5. Calling on students to share helps them develop their math concepts and develop academic language.
Students of poverty need to be given exercises to develop their language (Jensen, 2009). We always ask students to explain their answers. By doing this, the students get more opportunities to develop their academic language as well as delve deeply into math concepts.

6. It is important to make students of poverty feel comfortable.
Poor students tend to have more stressors and challenges in their lives, which affect how they learn (Jensen, 2009). Therefore, it is imperative that all students feel comfortable so they are more willing to take chances in math. Developing class community is one way to make students feel comfortable. We can also consider putting students of poverty next to students that support them.

7. We must have high expectations for all students. If we meet their needs, students of poverty can engage in rigorous mathematics.
If teachers believe that their poor students will not be successful in math, this negatively affects their mindsets. We can combat the gap in achievement if we have high expectations for all of our students, including the students of poverty.

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