On Maths

I freak out about maths, I have done for most of my adult life…until now, that is.

I have started to overcome my fear and have taught a little bit of KS2 maths, in Dunkirk, this year. Admittedly in the camp, when teaching numeracy, I’m under the watchful eye of my colleagues, both of whom have taught GCSE maths recently, but free from the pressure of Ofsted, free from the fear of being shown up for making a mistake, I’m learning and improving. I work with the younger children on their maths booklets and I can help them. We do greater than and less than. We look at patterns and multiples. We draw and use timelines. We add monetary values and I have taught some how to tell the time. I can do it, and I always try to explain why as well as how. For our students who do not yet wish to speak, sitting in class just watching and listening instead, numbers are easier to start with than an alphabet, phonics, words, songs.

It would help me to be even more confident with maths when working with younger students in camp, so I am working hard and learning. A colleague is gently building my confidence, and helping me to face the irrational fear. She is teaching me the basics, re-teaching me them, they are buried deep down but there is still a familiarity. She teaches me 1:1 during our lunch break. With her, I have rediscovered algebra and division, angles in a triangle and top heavy fractions. I’m improving. I’m trying to be resilient, I’ll have to be- it’s going to take some time, but she is building my confidence and makes it make sense. When it goes wrong we chuckle together. Just as she supports me with numbers, I can support others with the delivery of English. I starting to quite enjoy it, truth be told. I’m overcoming my heart racing fear and I am starting to find it interesting.

In some ways maths is a universal language- I have come to see this first hand, especially for our older learners who have studied English at school in Iraq or Iran from an early age, but it isn’t quite that simple. On the whole our students are able mathematicians, just as my knowledge of ESL and EAL, my Kurdish vocabulary and knowledge of our students’ cultures is improving rapidly, through research and application, so is my understanding of numbers.

The problems my colleagues face in their GCSE level maths classes are more regularly caused by their language barriers than by difficulties in understanding the concepts of mathematics. The older students, GCSE aged, find the tasks easy, but the phrasing of questions a challenge. They teach them the English of maths and then give them harder tasks. They model how and explain why. Our learners don’t need easier maths, just ‘clearer’ mathematics that allows them to access the work, and often they excel at it. Conceptually maths is universal, a language, but symbols pose problems that together we can overcome.

When struggling to shape and sound new letters and words, when struggling to read or spell, a success in maths is a reason to get a sticker, and success makes our students grin. The children plough through maths, desperate for more success, rising to the increasing challenge, a challenge often more easily overcome than writing grammatically sound sentences, in a foreign language, which even its own government gets confused by from time to time; think exclamation marks and fronted adverbials, need I say more.

Again our English-Kurdish dictionaries can help immensely with the working out of the words, but phrasing can mean that tasks are still confusing. Some of our willing older students; a gorgeous gaggle of teenage girls, work as our language assistants some mornings, supporting the younger students, before attacking their own GCSE maths problems, with heartiness and enthusiasm, in the afternoons, but still the little ones find it hard at times. The children often take time, thinking, thinking really really hard.

So, what could maths teachers of Kurdish children be aware of? What have I learned over the past few weeks?

Their number system is a start, I would suggest that for many of our younger students, who weren’t introduced to the English number system, as they have missed valuable years of their education, that maths is not quite the universal language that some believe it is. Look at the numbers below, look really carefully. Imagine if you had to do mathematical calculations using these new digits. What issues would you face?

Well, imagine looking at decimals. For them, a . is how they denote a zero. When adding tens and hundreds often a dot is used by the younger children instead of 0, they understand the maths but the symbols would make it look, to inexperienced eyes, mine included, that they don’t know what to add, putting the pen on the page and forming a point. Thinking, but not answering. Wrong. I was wrong at first- the answer is right, but the ‘universal language’ has failed for them. The maths, the working out, the process and logic is absolutely sound, but the answer can be, is, lost in translation.

Imagine if you had to write a zero instead of a 5, a back to front 3 instead of a 4 or a 7 instead of a 6? How confusing is that?

The little ones recite their numbers, but often forget the number 6. Are they forgetting the number 6 or the symbol? Are they actually forgetting the number 7? As their teacher they teach me too, by being aware of their written number systems (whilst some use Arabic-Indic, others use the Eastern Arabic-Indic digits) I can support their maths and they can still succeed, in their first language initially, and then with our numbers.

Yes, wherever you go in the world 2+4=6, but what if instead of 2 and four making six, du and penj results in shesh? What if, on some of our students’ pages, a back to front 7 added to a back to front 3 makes 7? That’s not quite so logical. So we crack the code together. We add another layer to the working out process.

So what universal languages do we share with our students? Well, I’ve come to see that a smile, a thumbs up, a gold star stuck onto some great work, and a real passion for learning is a language that we share with our students. And our non-verbal communication is absolutely key.

Equally, our boys love a competition just as much as my year 9 boys do back in England. They are driven by a natural desire to compete, to win.

I witnessed this competitive streak earlier this week, first hand, with a boy who I had been sat teaching English to. I had sat listening to him read and laugh at the funny illustrations, it was great. He loves, really adores, reading but when I test his comprehension it exhausts him, after my questions he would look less enthused, tired, the thinking and answering and explaining takes its toll on him, and although he wanted to continue reading the short stories, by the end of the day he was starting to fade. It was time to send him home.

As we were packing up, my colleague walked over with some maths flash cards, times tables. He sat up instantly, grinning, beaming and eyes all sparkly and wide, refreshed by the numbers after hard words. I slouched, I’m still ‘working towards’ mental arithmetic and he wanted to show me how fast he was, by racing me to the right answers. I know that I don’t do so well under pressure, competitive tasks have always filled me with dread- I mess up under the pressure. Suddenly he didn’t want to go home so urgently, seeing the numbers woke up his spirit and refreshed him. So, between us we drew out a chart and my colleague warned me that he was very quick. I was nervous.

The competition commenced, the teacher turned the cards and we battled to work each sum out the fastest. We were neck and neck, which was a bit embarrassing- even more so as I later found out that in the time it was taking me to answer, he was mentally translating the sums into Kurdish, doing the sum and then translating back to the English number system. He really was a whizz. He was there, on the edge of his seat, hanging off my colleague’s every word, awaiting the next card to be turned, and wanting desperately to win- to beat the teacher, to beat me. He sat answering, all the time keeping his eye on the growing tally charts that we were inking after each question, onto our shared whiteboard.

He could have easily taken the lead at one point, and taken my dignity with it, but after eagerly beating me to the answer, he then admitted that he had seen the sum on the card before it was placed down- sweetly offering the point to me, admitting that he hadn’t gained it fairly or honestly. I didn’t take it. And we continued on. The rivalry revved up, the last few cards were laid down and I just about saved face by scraping a draw. It was close, I needed the final point to avoid being beaten. So we were equals.

He took the tie with dignity, held out his hand, shaking mine firmly. We shared big smiles and were united also by the challenge of maths, by the numbers that had made the moment beautiful, special, magical. Maybe, for some of our students, maths is a universal language, after all.

It was 5pm: the end of the school day. He got up, buzzing still, tucking his chair neatly under his desk, ready to go and on the way out he paused, grinning, and said he would see me ‘next week’ for round two. A rematch. ‘Again, again!’ I accepted his challenge, how could I refuse? So now I will be upping my game, revising my times tables over the Easter weekend, I’m going for the win- although have a sneaky suspicion that he will be too!

Natalie Scott is a qualified English teacher, currently teaching in a school in Hertfordshire. To read more from her reflections on teaching and education go to https://nataliehscott.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @nataliehscott

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