Tag Archives: motivation

Motivation 101 – Define Success

I tell students that success in our class means everyday you leave better than you showed up.  And to leave better means you learned at least one thing about algebra.  It doesn’t matter if you have an A or an F, that simply measures how you have done in the past – but today you are success if you can learn one thing.

Everyday I write the goal for the days lesson on the board.  The goal could be to simplify rational expressions, but I always remind the students that the actual goal is to learn at least one thing about algebra.

I tell students to look for things they don’t understand and be excited when they encounter them because it is precisely those things that are going to make them a success.   If I’m helping a student and they get it – they go from a place or not knowing to knowing, I tell them “good job, you’re a success today, keep it up”.

At the end of class I always recap the day for the final couple minutes, and I provide them with time to reflect on what they learned.

Look I guess what I’m saying is that you want to define success in such a way that allows every student to feel good about themselves everyday, regardless of past performance.

Why Algebra? – The Basketball Analogy

“I think less of us would drop out if we just knew why the hell we needed this stuff”

That was said by a student who was simplifying rational expressions.  I had a positive relationship with her so the quote was simple honesty and not some veiled attempt at making a teacher feel bad by calling their job pointless.  I knew at that moment I needed to be more purposeful in my attention to the question of ‘Why Algebra?’.

Periodically throughout the year I dedicate a few minutes to tell them why Algebra is important.  I always remind them there are many different reasons, and that no reason by itself will feel sufficient because we are all such different people.  But when we take all the reasons together, the total picture will hopefully be able to answer the question for each student.   I usually start with a basketball analogy because I used to coach basketball.  It’s how I explain that you will need to use algebra in more advanced math.

We learn algebra differently that we learn most things in our life.  For example you generally play basketball first.  And then you decide you want to get better so you practice some rebounding drills.  Then you realize that you need to be able to dribble the ball and you start doing ball handling drills.  Algebra is typically constructed the other way around.  We practice algebra drills without ever playing math – essentially we are practicing dribbling drills without ever playing basketball.  This of course is not always true in algebra class and we are playing math as much as possible in my class – but I’m not trying to spend a lot of time in gray areas to make this point.

With that setup I show the students this video of MIT Instructor Lydia Bourouiba (I begin it at the 1-minute mark) going over a Separable Equations problem in a Differential Equation class.

There are multiple places in this video where she does algebra steps.  Like at the 1:09 mark when she puts all the y-variables on one side of the equation, and the x-variables on the other.  Except she doesn’t show any of her work, she just does it.  In basketball you don’t think about how to dribble, you just dribble.  So here I pause the video and do that step like we would in our class, I multiply both sides by dx, canceling the dx’s on the left.  Then I divide both sides by y^2, canceling the y^2 on the right.  Students are surprised to see that they understand something Lydia is doing, and also wondering why she didn’t show her steps like I did.

I end up pausing the video in several places.

I’m basically showing the class that someone in a multivariable calculus class is using the exact things we practice.  Except that the algebra she uses is not an end unto itself – rather it is another step towards a greater purpose.  She is using algebra in the process of resolving a larger question.

Here’s an exchange I had with a student after I made the points above:

Student – “Yeah Mr. Miller, but how are we suppose to remember what we are doing here 10 years from now?”
MM – “Do don’t have to remember it, because you’ll just do it.  When you are playing basketball you don’t remember that first dribbling drill you did 10 years ago.  You just dribble.”

And I shit you not – I saw and heard multiple aha moments around the room.  And then the closing line:

MM – “I know what you are all thinking.  I know if I was you, when I was your age, I would be thinking to myself ‘That’s fine but I still don’t care because I am never going to take that class.’  (pause for laughter and general agreement from the class)  But you never know.  I ended up taking that class”.

That takes a few minutes – and then I begin the days lesson.  Are students instantly motivated?  No.  But at worst the student who honestly thought there was no reason – now knows there is some reason.  Maybe they don’t think that reason applies to them, but they know its there.  And if your students do not embrace the unknown quality of their futures; embrace the fact that they don’t know where these open doors lead – then your job as a motivator is not done yet anyway.

What I Do When I Have A Bad Day

I definitely think an important part of classroom management is learning how to manage ourselves.  How to put the things that happen in our classes into perspective, and keep ourselves focused, happy, and energized.  And how to keep ourselves from not feeling tired, regretful, or hopeless.  We have to keep ourselves fresh and away from negativity, which is easier said than done.  Especially on those days where it’s not working for us.  Those days where a disruptive student got the best of us, and has us feeling outmatched.  So I’ll just tell you that when I have one of those days –  I always recite the following quote to myself:

“Finish each day and be done with it, you have done what you could.  Blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can.  Tomorrow is a new day.  Begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have it reserved to memory and recommend you do too.  It cheers me up and gives me energy to face each day anew.  For me, it is exactly what I need to hear at that moment.  I won’t talk about what else it means to me, I’ll let it mean to you whatever you want it to.

Another thing that helped me tough days I wrote about here.  If you are having issues with a couple students who are really frustrating you, I recommend reading it.  It is a technique I use to reframe my thinking on problem students into a positive and productive mindset.