Why Do Words in Math Class Make Kids Cry?

As I've said before, I'm teaching math for the first time this year. It kind of feels like an interesting psychology experiment to me because I now see these five kids in the language arts and in the math classroom. It's interesting how different people excel in and enjoy different topics.

Our school does Saxxon math, which is a cyclical curriculum. Basically, every day is a short lesson, and the problem set has a few of those problems but also problems from previous lessons. There are parts of that that I like and parts of it that I hate. A problem set is thirty problems, and if you use the whole class period for activities to help understand the homework, that's a lot of homework for your students.

I've been working on finding interesting math tasks to accompany the concepts that we're studying. I'm forever indebted to John Stevens for showing me Robert Kaplinksy's search engine for this reason.

And you know what I've noticed? Kids freak out when there are words involved in their math. In my quest to make math applicable to the real world, we've been doing a lot of Yummy Math's lessons, which explore math in the context of the world. Each lesson has a bunch of words that explain the context for the math. As someone who teaches English, I love this because it teaches students about literacy and the world around them. My students perform well in language arts, but when they see words in their math class, they freak out. They sometimes even shut down. And I can't help but wonder why.

Yes, sometimes the lessons utilize concepts that they've never learn, but it's a class of five students, and I sit there and talk through it with them. I know that if they just slow it down and think through and process the question it will come to them. It won't be easy, but it will come.

But instead my students are groaning that their "brains hurt" (a feeling that I personally love). And so I'm starting to believe that we're doing students a disservice by teaching math out of context. That we're teaching a step-by-step process that's memorized instead of a way of thinking and problem-solving. And yes, there are things to be memorized, but I think it's more important that my students can use their brains without negative pain or tears than it is for them to memorize the quadratic equation.

But honestly, I have less than two months of math teaching experience, and I'm curious about your thoughts. This probably makes me align with the Common Core or something, but I'm way less concerned about that than I am concerned about preparing my students to be active world-changers who solve the multitude of problems our world faces.