Subversive Teaching

This post started out very differently. I planned to write about how three of my kindergarten mathematicians solved the problem, “Three kids have a mug of hot chocolate. They are going to put ten marshmallows in each mug. How many marshmallows will they need altogether for their three mugs of hot chocolate?” Someday I might write that post. (The pictures of the kids in action on this problem are still here) But here’s a bigger idea I’ve been thinking about.

Children are powerful mathematicians. This is something I’ve written about often, here on my blog and in my book. It may seem like a simple statement, but I believe it speaks to the kind of advocacy we, as teachers, need to commit to for our learners. All children problem solve, our brains are designed for it much in same way that our brains are designed for language learning. We expect our babies to learn to talk, our children to learn to read and write, and yet, in many ways the expectations for mathematical problem solving are not the same.

Recently someone asked me if I missed my former position as a math coach, and why, when I chose to go back into the classroom, I chose kindergarten. The answer to that question is, of course, not  simple. I chose to go back to a classroom position because I missed the community aspect of having my own classroom and being with the same group of children all day. I missed teaching reading and writing (I’m more than just math :-)) The mathematical answer, however, was that kindergarten is a place where the informal problem-solving strategies that children develop (as early as when they are babies) can be developed and guided in amazing ways. Kindergarten is a rich environment  for instilling the idea, “You are a mathematician.” “This is what mathematicians do.” “How were you a mathematician when you…?” “What do you wonder about? And how can we figure that out?” Children can become agents in their own learning, feel a sense of ownership from the beginning of their educational career.

And yet, kindergarten is often a place where math is watered down to rote counting, number writing practice, and inappropriate (in my ever humble opinion) memorization of facts. There are textbooks and programs making lots of money off this idea that kindergartners are empty slates who must first learn to do x, y, z before they can be problem solvers. Many teachers are asked (by schools, by districts, by our federal government) to commit to these kinds of practices. I know sometimes, in some places, it feels like there is a constant struggle between teaching responsively in the way you know is best and teaching what has been dictated.

And so, here is my truest answer about why I went back to the classroom. I say this with the caveat, that this was only the right choice for me. There are amazing math coaches (I get to work with several!), specialists, and administrators that advocate amazingly for students and teachers. But the classroom is where I belong. For now.

The classroom is really the grassroots of education. Despite the fact that we teach in a time in which many teachers feel powerless to the greater forces at play in education policy, I maintain that the classroom is a powerful place for change. It’s a place to be subversive. To teach what children need. To be responsive to every child. To problem solve with your kids. To push limits. To push back when you are asked to teach/test something inappropriate.

When people ask me what I do for a living and I reply that I’m a kindergarten teacher, I often hear, “Oh how cute, you get to sing and play with kids all day.”

“Yes, I do.” And while I’m singing and playing I also help them to think about the world, to question gender roles and power, to inquire about mathematics and determine pathways to solving problems, to understand the power that comes with being able to read, to negotiate, to argue fairly.”

Some of this is in the written curriculum, lots of it is not. I hope more and more teachers consider themselves powerful advocates for their students–that we continue to be subversive in our teaching (even in small ways) in times of ever-increasing standardized education.

So, teach on, amazing educators out there. Keep up the hard, but always worthwhile work.






8 thoughts on “Subversive Teaching

  1. I couldn’t agree more that the classroom is where the best work can be done! Whenever I get frustrated with administrative directives or what’s happening in our state with education, I know that when I step into my classroom I am exactly where I want and need to be. Thanks for your post!

  2. What a fabulous post, Kassia. I can relate so much to your feelings about returning to the classroom. Yes, we have the power to make change and to make a huge difference with the children in our classrooms every day. And yes, the classroom is a place to be subversive, for sure. We can close our doors and do what we know is best for children – in spite of things we are asked to do by lawmakers, business people and others that are not educators – that we know are not best practice.

    I’m reminded of the Hippocratic Oath that medical professionals take – “do no harm”. I really think that should be an oath for teachers too. There are mandates, directives, etc. that indeed “do harm” to children. As hard as it is, it’s up to us to be that advocate for the children we are trusted with each day. Many of those children do not have anyone else advocating for them. As difficult as it sometimes is, we need to question and respond to the “powers that be” with alternatives to unsound teaching practices that seem to be increasing with alarming speed. Joining our voices together seems to be the best chance of us being heard. But in the meantime, we can continue making a difference with the 20+ kiddos who walk through our doors each morning.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post about being an advocate. How lucky those kids are to have you as the beginning of their education – teaching them to question, wonder and foster a strong sense of agency.

  3. Great post! Often people (some teacher people, too) think that the early childhood grades are just for “play”, especially kinder, and that there’s no real “work” or “learning” that goes on in the classroom. EC teachers know that a lot of learning happens in our classrooms and it’s the kind that is not easily measured but is essential because it’s long lasting. Thanks for the pep talk. A nice transition as I head back to school on Monday.

  4. So thrilled to find your blog. I have been a math specialist who missed the classroom. Now I am teaching first graders. I am doing some projects called D& W. It stands for Design and Woodworking. I got the idea from a school in Baltimore. Our latest project was to create a ruler using a piece of wood and marking off the inches by hammering a nail at each inch mark. Looking forward to more of your posts.

    1. Thanks for reading, Karen. The Design and Woodworking projects sound like a powerful application of math in a meaningful context. Would love to hear more about it. –Kassia

  5. There are so many wonderful, powerful voices out there advocating for children and for teachers. As a teacher and a parent I am grateful for them all. I know that the ones that are strongest for me are those who are in a classroom. The people who are working closely with students everyday.

    We have such important roles to play in and out of our classrooms. Thank you for saying it so well.

  6. Classroom teachers have one of the hardest jobs in the building and one of the most rewarding jobs in the building. I’m glad you’re there with the critters and enjoying how much they enlighten and exhaust you daily.

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