My teaching career began in a 6th grade multiple-subject classroom. Along with math, I loved having my students experience good literature. One favorite activity for both the students and myself was to read aloud to them. I had a few favorite read-aloud chapter books that I would share with them, like Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick or Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. It was a joy creating voices for each character and really getting into the story, but it was even more rewarding seeing the faces of the students in rapt imagination as they used the author’s words to construct whole worlds in their minds.
As we know, Hollywood loves to make movies out of popular books, including books for young readers. So, books that I had presented to my class had also often been made into feature length movies. Without fail, when we finished reading a book students would ask, “Are we going to watch the movie?”
I consistently answered, “NO!”
Of course, students complained and wondered why I would not show them the movie. Like most people, I sometimes read a book, see the corresponding movie, and say, “The book was better.” Is that really true? Movies can be pretty amazing. However, I would suggest we like the book more because we don’t like being told that our imagination is wrong. Using an author’s words, we construct images in our minds and even though the words come from the author, those images belong to us. So seeing somebody else’s interpretation of those images is usually disappointing, no matter how great the special effects or how famous the actors. Moreover, we tend to remember the movie’s images and forget our own. This serves to delegitimize our own thinking and imagination. Knowing this, I did not want to do this to my students.
The Math Connection
When we give students puzzles or problems to solve they will construct ways to solve them. They will struggle, communicate, try, fail, try again, and hopefully succeed in the end. Solving a good math problem can be like a story and can even follow a story arc with conflict, rising and falling action, times of feeling lost, and ultimately a victorious ending.
In my math teaching experience, students will ask the teacher about the “right” solution to a problem. In short, they are asking to “watch the movie” after going through “the book.” If a teacher gives in to this request, they can be delegitimizing what students have constructed. Further still, when a teacher tells students how to solve problems before letting them struggle on their own, it is like showing the movie without even reading the book. This goes beyond delegitimizing imagination, it negates it all together.
Children have stories of their own. Moreover, they have mathematical stories of their own. How can we as teachers be promoters of stories and imagination rather than the spoilers?