By Judith Escuin Checa with Kristin Klingensmith and Beatriz Font Strawhun

In a recent article, math fellows, Laurie Speranzo and Beatriz Font-Strawhun wrote about ways in which students use relational thinking through connection-making when problem solving. For this article, we look more closely at the ways a teacher can and the importance of supporting students in making connections between their math work, themselves, and the community/world in which they live.

To do this, we invited Judith Escuin Checa (known as Ms. J.) to share examples from her classroom. Ms. J. began to embrace teaching mathematics in early 2020 after seeing how afraid her students were of the subject. She used the time she had during the pandemic as an opportunity to learn to love teaching math and continues to reflect on and refine her practice.

Ms. J. teaches in Todd County School District, one of our partnering districts located on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Judith teaches fourth through eighth grade mathematics at Spring Creek School. Read on as Judith shares two stories–one involving her middle schoolers and the other her fourth and fifth graders–and reflects on the impact the connection making has had on her students.

Middle Schoolers – Don’t Get Hustled

In our sixth-eighth grade math group, we were recently working to build a better understanding of ratios through reasoning about unit rates. In the problem set we were working on from Engage NY, we had to consider how much money a person was earning in a day depending on the length of their shift. The students then compared how those numbers would change for someone working at another coffee shop that paid $3 more per hour.

While this problem is grounded in a real-life situation… We live on the Rez, where coffee shops are not really a thing. But that doesn’t mean the problem couldn’t be made relevant. The problem was not about where the people were working but rather, it was about the fact that they were working the same job for different pay. In my classroom, I always say that practical math is as important as academic math. I used this problem as an opportunity to discuss what students need to consider when choosing a job offer given that most of the jobs around here offer hourly pay. Once the students had completed the tables with the amount of money earned in both situations, we pondered THE million-dollar question: “So, why does this matter?”

One of my kids said, “So, you are saying it matters because we might get hustled?” To which I responded, “Absolutely! Not all jobs or bosses will try to hustle you, but they might. And that’s why knowing how ratios work matters. Gabe is missing out on 3 dollars an hour. Let’s see how much he would be missing by the end of a week, or even a month.” “Whoa, that’s a lot of money!” was the general consensus.

We went even deeper down the rabbit hole, talking in hypotheticals:

    • Is a 16-hour shift reasonable? Why or why not?
    • For what hourly rate would you consider a 16-hour shift?
    • How would working overtime after 8 hours change things?
    • How much extra money would that be if overtime was available?

We realized that with all things being the same, someone is getting paid significantly less for the exact same job and shift length.

These questions mattered because they can impact my students’ future choices. These questions needed to be pondered and answered. During the 10-15 minutes that we wandered away from the task as it was written, the students worked to deepen their understanding around ratios in a way that was both rigorous and empowering in the moment and for their future. And I am all for it.

Fourth and Fifth Graders – Yes, You Will Use This in Your Life

These types of connections don’t need to be reserved for higher grades. In my fourth and fifth grade group, we were discussing the relationship between multiplication and division as inverse operations. The I-statement for the lesson was “Today I will learn why multiplication and division are inverse operations, so I can use what I already know to divide. I will know I got it when I can use equal groups diagrams to show my thinking.”  When talking about the I- statement, one of the boys said, “Why does it matter that I know how to work with groups? I don’t do any of this at home.”

Instead of moving on with the lesson, we addressed his question as a group with a practical example. Halloween was coming up, so I asked if he was planning on bringing treats for our classroom party. When he said “Yes,” I asked: “Well, how will you know if you are bringing enough candies for everybody?” He said, “I will put them in little bags to make sure I am not forgetting any!” to which I answered, “You mean you are going to make equal groups?” “Oooh yeah!”, he said.

Then we proceeded to stretch that thinking and work through the math of how much candy he was planning on putting on each bag, how many bags he needed and how he could tell how many candy packs he would need to get at the store. This “tangent” made understanding the relationship between both operations and the way we can represent them so much easier for the entire group and, most importantly, it helped my students understand how “academic math” related to his life in a very practical way.

The Impact of Fostering This Type of Connection Making

By welcoming these conversations in the classroom, I can honestly say that I have seen students become more confident in their math skills. I’ve heard them say: “I can do real-life math, so I just need to figure out the school way.”

Students have been more willing to take academic risks and are invested in understanding the messy, nitty-gritty part of math that can seem so daunting. By honoring their process and being intentional about making connections between their lives in and out of school, problem solving, mathematical understanding, and accuracy come to be.

More about Judith Escuin Checa

I was born in Barcelona, Spain, and completed my postgraduate studies in Belfast, UK, where I lived for a time. I moved to the US and have been working on the Rosebud Reservation for five years.  I started as a self-contained teacher for Grades 2-3 and have looped with my students since then. Since becoming departmentalized three years ago, I have been able to focus on teaching and learning mathematics.

During my time at TCSD, I have been both a mentee and mentor for new teachers. I am a member of the Math Curriculum Committee and Science Curriculum Committee. I am also part of the Sicangu Indigenous Principles of Learning (SIPL) group. We are developing reflection tools and support materials for teachers seeking to indigenize learning in their classrooms. I also work part-time as an education specialist and public policy consultant for the RST Education department.

English is my 4th language so sometimes it is hard for me to come up with the English version of the word I am looking for. Instead of hiding it, I have embraced it and now some students have made it their mission to help me out with frequent ones. I think this has also helped them see that, as a teacher, I don’t always have all the answers and that we are in the learning boat together.

And finally, I am a cat person. I rescued two kittens a couple months into my time at TCSD, and I CANNOT not talk about them during class. I use them as examples in class and bring pictures and videos of them. Some of my students are so invested in them that they decided to write letters to the principal to let me bring them to school a few years ago.

Tell Us About How You Support Students’ Connection Making!

We’d love to hear from you! What have you been doing to support students in making connections between their math work, themselves, and the community/world in which they live? Share you story with us here and we may reach out about including it in an upcoming article.