As part of a pre-assessment in a mathematics class, middle school students were given the following item:
20. As a math student in this class, I rate myself on the following scale (put an X on the scale where you rate yourself).
1 corresponded to "Probably the worst in the class"
10 corresponded to "Totally awesome! Maybe the best in the school"

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Junior High School 2011

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Then students were asked to write a response to the following:
"The reason I rated myself as a/an ____ on the scale above is because:"
The purpose of this article is not to present a statistical analysis of the responses students gave. Rather, it is to present the written responses of the students who rated themselves quite low (with the grammatical and spelling errors intact, of course). I believe that reading these responses in their entirety will move you to consider (and re-consider) the students in your classroom who could have written these same responses.
The educational jargon puts a label on students who are 'at-risk' and sometimes this label creates a distance between the teacher and the students. I am hoping that reading the responses of these middle school math students - in their own words - will help bridge the emotional distance between the students and their teachers (so please share this article).
These responses were obtained as part of larger pre-assessment administered prior to beginning some research on reading strategy instruction in mathematics. This item was almost an "add-on" because I had space on the last page and thought this question would be an interesting one to ask. As it turned out, this was the most interesting item on the pre-assessment. A total of 361 pre-assessments were gathered and eventually the responses were grouped into three categories:
high self-rating,
medium self-rating, and
low self-rating.
The high self-rating group included 148 students who rated themselves between 7.0 and >10 (all the way up to 14!), with responses to the stem, "The reason I rated myself as a/an __ on the scale above is because," such as the following:
I keep working on problems, even if I don't understand it.
I check my work for mistakes.
I don't always assume I'm right or know everything.
I try my best, and do my work on time.
I listen to the math teacher and take notes, which I study.
I really pay attention and try to learn as much as possible within the class time. With a very disruptive class, it's hard to learn, but I always try my best no matter what other people do or think.
• Because I know how to do the work and I know most of the answers, but sometimes I don't do my homework because I just want to do other things. I'm getting better grades. Math is coming a lot easier to me now so that 's how I feel about me rating myself.
The middle self-rating group included 165 students. They rated themselves between 4.0 and 6.9, and wrote responses such as the following (beginning with the same stem, "The reason I rated myself as a/an __ on the scale above is because"):
I'm not good at difficult problems but I'm good at easy and fun problems so I'm feel I'm in between the worst and the best.
I need to have thing explained better to me than the book does, then I understand.
Sometimes I just don't understand the book and what it's talking about or I don't understand the way they explained it.
I rate myself a 6 1/2 because I don't understand it all the time and sometimes I don't do it.
I'm not really good at math, but I try very hard to get good grades.
Forty-eight (48) students rated themselves below 4.0. While all 361 responses were interesting, the most striking category, taken as a whole, was the low self-rating group. All of this group's responses are included and I invite you to read through them.
Numerical Rating - Comments, which began with the stem, "The reason I rated myself as a/an __ on the scale above is because:
0 - I don't understand the stuff they talk about. It goes in my brain but dosn't stay in there long enough for me to understand it. -10 - I stink at math.
0 - I don't try I don't bring my book and I don't pay atention or do homework
3 or 4 - cause, I dont always do my homework. or study. I also dont do good on my test's. So I feel Im probely one of the worst in the class. Also includeing my attude.
3 - I never stay on task and never do my homework
3 - I don't like math or reading at all
3 - cause I don't know how to do it unless the teacher explains it (usually)
1 - I copy I cheat I talk I don't pay any attension I suck I stupid this math is way to hard I don't try when I do I get stressed out cause I can't do it.
1 - It is because I have a hard time doing the questions. I always ask questions and kids think I'm dumb. I never understand the homework or the test I ether guss or cheat. And I feel horrable in math
3.5 - sometimes I talk in class and laugh a lot sometimes I forget to pay attension and I always forget to cover my book. And I always fail my tests. 1 - I dont do some of my homework
3 - I don't do very well in math. Right when I start understanding the section we move on
3 - I really don't like math and I don't understand most of the stuff it's hard.
1 - Its true (i.e., the scale indicates 1 = probably the worst in the class)
1 - I transferd from another school and I dont know transishin mathamatics
4 1/2 - I can do the work I just don't some of the things in this book
1 - I don't do my work, and I act of in class, talk back to the teacher and that kind of stuff.
0 - I used to be good in math but now I totaly stink and I don't know why. I know I have truble getting homework done.
1--attitude wise and 5.5 math wise Attitude: I like to read so I don't pay attention. Math: when I seldomly do do math I usually find the answer in the beggining of the chapter
1 - I don't think that I am very good in math. I alway's get stuck on a problem and get frustrated. 2.2 - a I dont do all of my work; b I always have detention in this class; c I'm flunking; d I dont understand 1/2 the work
1 - I do the work but I don't turn it in
1-2 - I am not good in Math. I always fail my test no matter how hard I try.
1 - I don't pay attention in class and when it comes time for the test or homework, I dont get it
-1 - I will probably not need algebraic math in the future but will need basic math. (It's also the teacher in most cases)
2 - I'm not an A student and I get in more truble in this school then the avearge student.
3 - Im a very hiper student
-5 - Im failing alot worst than anyone else and I might flunk.
0 - I really don't understand my work and I don't try all the time but some times I do some work
3 1/2 - Well since I came to 7th grade, math has just gotten harder. At my other middle school they miss placed me in the wrong class so I have fallen behind and am still trying to catch up.
3 - sometimes I slack off on my homework.
0 - Im the worst of the worst in this math class. 0 - I dont understand it, it goes in one ear and out the other it dons't stay in my head long enough for me to understand it
0 - I am not good at math at all.
3 - My grade in this class is never above a C- and I'm trying pretty darn hard.
1 - I suck at math as you can see.
3 1/2 - Sometimes I act like a fool and sometimes I act pretty good and sometimes I do or don't do my homework.
1 - I dont understand hardly any of the things and ____ (teacher's first name) teaches me one thing then when I go to do that he tells me not to and shows me a different way. Plus the book at this school is harder and alot different than the one at my old school.
1 - I rated myself a 1 because supposedly I don't ever do my homework and I'm a flunk according to some people.
3 - it's hard for me to understand what the letters mean what this is this and that is that so I get comfused then I fall behind and do poorly on the test. So when I don't understand it I try the problem if I can't do it I get mad and put the book away.
2-3 - I dont do good in math I'v never had a good grade in math, acually really, I hate the subject math. It gets harder and harder every year. I dont like math.
3.5 - I am not that good in math and I dont like it.
-000 - I am stupid. How stupid are you? Very stupid.
3.5 - grade wise & 7 knowledge wise My grades suck but I think I know the stuff
Other teachers who have read these responses have had the same reaction I did when reading through them. There is a sense of sadness, a feeling of "if I had only known this sooner, I could have done something," and an awareness that there are students in nearly all our classrooms who could (or would) write the same type of response. I don't consider myself an overly "warm fuzzy" teacher and am certainly not calling for a halt to instruction so that encounter groups can be held in the mathematics classroom, however, I do believe that these self-ratings warrant a response from educators.
If all 361 responses we received had been of the type shown above, then one might say, "Well, middle school is a difficult place and these kids are just going through a phase." But, all the responses were not characterized by the low self-image indicated by approximately 13%, so the desperation indicated in these students' responses can not simply be attributed to their age.
An offhand remark about an individual student or about the class or about mathematics can be taken to heart by a middle-schooler. However, even the carefully-considered statement where the teacher is commenting on behavior and not placing a judgement on the student may be interpreted by the student as "I'm no good; I'm not smart; I'm not good in math." (e.g., consider the student's response: "I rated myself a 1 because supposedly I don't ever do my homework and I'm a flunk according to some people.")
Give students opportunities to express their feelings and attitudes about math. These may be done through learning logs, informal class discussions, or one-on-one conversations. We use learning logs frequently and ask students to respond to statements such as, "The part that scares me the most about mathematics is....", "My ability to do math is....", "Math is my best subject....", "I'm having a ball in mathematics and I'd like to tell you about it...."
Help students distinguish between behavior and ability and self-worth. Students' perceptions of themselves sometimes are based on behaviors that have nothing to do with their ability or their self-worth (e.g., the student who rated himself as a 3 1/2 partly because he didn't cover his book). Talk to students and help them separate citizenship behavior from academic potential and both of these from their intrinsic worth.
Recognize that some quiet students are not shy, just hiding. Some students become quite skilled at disappearing while in the classroom. They have learned to cloak their lack of confidence, their real or perceived lack of ability, and their fear of failure and simply blend into the furniture. Especially at the crucial early adolescent stage, we must discern between students who are shy and not participating and students who are "clued out" and are not participating

I hope you felt, as well as read, the students' responses and that you have some new insights into the young people in your mathematics classes. This article isn't a call for changes in your lesson plans but rather for more reflection on classroom climate.


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