All posts by Matt Samson

Matt teaches fourth and fifth grades in the Hansen Alternative Program. He earned a masters in teaching from The Evergreen State College. He plays guitar, piano, and ultimate frisbee.

Why Not Helping is Helping


I have taught math in  public schools for thirteen years.  Each new batch of students comes with a handful of parents who grapple with how best to help their children wrestle with math homework.  You, yourself, may be one of those parents.  When faced with math tasks asking for explanation of reasoning, or when the new-fangled curriculum wields a new strategy in place of familiar algorithms, the kettle of parents minds starts to bubble, roil, and whistle.

Dear Parents,

I have good news, a simple mandate which will both alleviate this internal pressure to perform math miracles AND will be better for your child’s math.  The advice?  BE LESS HELPFUL.

Don’t answer their questions.  Don’t show them shortcuts.  Above all, DO NOT teach them the old tried and true shortcuts of the standard algorithm.

I am not giving you a free pass, here.  Notice, I did not say, “Make them do their math all by themselves.”  Rather, I want you to enter their world of confusion with them.  Pull up a chair.  Grab some scratch paper.  Do the problem with them.  Not for them.   With them.  Answer their question with more questions.  Verbalize when you get stuck.  Normalize the struggle.

One common deficit in our students is their inability or unwillingness to ask questions.  But if a student can verbalize what they don’t understand, if they can formulate a question, then they are in an infinitely better place than if they quit before really diving head-long into the pool of problems.  Your best way of helping them is to role model these skills.  Make them teach you.

When you get stuck on a math problem, don’t give up.  Persist.  If you have no idea how to do a problem, guess.  Make an assumption and run with it.  If that assumption helps you solve the problem, hallelujah!  If not, even better.  Now you can go back to the assumption and say, “Now I know that this is wrong!  Therefore, it must mean blah blah blah instead!”  Then off you go, down another rabbit hole of problem solving.

Another deficit in our math students is learned helplessness.  Many are unwilling to even try.  Show them how to make mistakes. Gracefully!  With aplomb!  With pride!  What’s more, celebrate those moments, for this is where true learning lies.  Do a happy dance!  Pump your fists!  Cheer!

Now, if on a particular problem, you have reached the dead-end of this logical alleyway, you and your student are in the prime position to express what you don’t understand.  Have your kid write down this question in place of an answer.  Have them staple together all their failed attempts to turn in.  If your math teacher is worth their mustard, they will honor this work and highly appreciate it.  This makes their job far easier: they no longer have to guess why their kids aren’t getting this.

In conclusion, I would like to say thank you.  Thank you for being involved in your children’s education.  If you are reading this blog, then you are truly exceptional in your level of commitment to their education.  You already know that helping kids with their academics is difficult.  It is a problem.  It is your homework problem.  Math is the process of identifying problems, then methodically going about solving them.  This is the perfect opportunity to practice what I’m preaching.

So don’t look for short cuts.  Don’t look for easy fixes.  Look for a solution.  And this part is probably self obvious (but for some reason, not always in math): don’t give up; persist; the solution is out there somewhere, sitting right next to your kid.

My Fear of Math Phobias


There is one idea that I would love to disappear completely from math discussions: “math phobia.” Vamoose! Vanish! Evanesco! Of all the ideas that are harmful or destructive to students’ acquisition of math ideas, “math phobia” is one of the worst.

Yet, I hear it all the time. I hear it from adults all the time. I hear it from parents. What is worst of all is that I hear it from other teachers. “I am not good at math”; “I never did understand that”; “go ask your dad”; and the darndest of them all: “I hate math.” To beat all, they say it right in front of kids–their own kids and students.  Sometimes, I’m not sure if they are calling themselves or the math itself stupid.

Now, I am not saying that there is no such thing as math phobia. I am sure that some people actually run in fear when they see numbers on street signs. I am certain that somewhere, men and women are cowering, shivering in their closets because they read “¼ cup of sugar” in a recipe, or a telephone number flashed up on the screen when they were watching the television.

What I am saying, though, is that these phrases and attitudes give kids a free pass. They hear the adults walking around dismissing their own mental power all the time. So they do it, too. Kids become lethargic. Kids start saying, jokingly at first, that they aren’t good at math. But by the fifth grade, I see many kids completely checked out. It’s not that they couldn’t understand the math problems. They simply have become so used to not putting in the required brain power (which is not that much voltage, incidentally).

So parents, I implore you: zip those math-phobic lips! Pretend that you love math DESPITE all the damaging math classes you had as a youth. Refuse to pass the buck to your partner who “has the math smarts in the family.”  Instead, each time you notice the beauty in a flower or the symmetry in a piece of artwork, declare, “Ah! Look at the geometry on that puppy!”

This may drastically change the way you interact with your students around math and around homework. Instead of the instructional coach, you are now fellow math adventurer. Talk less about how to do the math and more about what it makes you think of. Where do you see the patterns in the real world? Where does geometry show up in art and architecture? Where do fractals sprout up in the coral reefs and forests?

One more thing, don’t be afraid of pointing out short cuts. If your kid is spending much extra time and effort on a problem which has a more direct and elegant solution, go ahead and say, “Son, have you ever thought of [blah blah blah]?” Or, “Daughter of mine, I see that you are stumped here, but maybe you could solve an easier problem.”  What this will roll model is that mathematicians aren’t into punishing themselves. We are all about making work easier; making the world around us easier to understand. What is so scary about that?


“The universe is the teacher of all things.”

–Maria Montessori


Dear Parents,

I believe that my job as a teacher is to teach kids the magic of math; to carry on a long and noble tradition of inquiry.  You see, math emerged as a religious quest to uncover the mysteries of the universe.  “Sacred Geometry” emerged as mathematicians realized a mystical and crystalline structures in everything around them.  I do not believe that they found this beauty through closely observing mathematical worksheets that their teacher gave them.

I recently read an amazing Popular Science article, “Behind New York City’s Macroscopic Snowflakes“.  Even if you don’t read the article, you should absolutely check out the photographs of the snowflakes.  There are the most amazing photographs of snowflakes, but they look alien and bizarre compared to the crystals you have pictured in your mind.   There is also a great deal of learning to be done through the close observation of these fractal polygons.  How many of us [math teachers] stop to smell these roses?

It instantly reminded me of an podcast I’d listened to on Radiolab.  In their piece, “Crystal Bliss,” they introduce  Wilson Bentley, the first human to photograph a snowflake.  And even though you have likely seen his iconic photos, he received a lot of criticism from other photographers and scientists of the time.  Apparently, Bentley doctored his photos.  Apparently, his main goal was to capture the “perfect” snowflake.  In this way, he was more of an artist than a scientist.  We have much to learn from appreciating the world through artistic lenses (both real and metaphorical).  It is a shame that some see science and art as exclusive.  I hope to inspire my students to blur this distinction.

And so, dear parents, I hope that you take the quest that I am on with my own students: take a look around you.  There are miracles, both evolving and crystallized, all around us.  And, they are just waiting to teach us.


Why School Districts’ Adoption of “Common Core Curricula” is not Common Core

This year, our school district adopted a new math curriculum.  According to several of the teachers who served on the adoption committee, the chosen materials were head and shoulders above and beyond what other curricula were providing to meet the mathematical demands of the new Common Core.

When I received the materials, I looked forward to a program that could satisfy the Common Core’s demands that kids problem solve, persevere, seek short cuts, and critique mathematical ideas.  But during the trainings, and in several communications from our principal and data team leaders, we received the expectation that we teach the program “with fidelity.”  This included an expectation that we teach the same material on the same day as the other grade level teachers in our school.  Ironically, I was even asked to skip an entire module so that I could begin the next unit in tandem with my fellow fourth grade teachers.

Now set aside your concerns that skipping modules is the antithesis of “fidelity”.  Set aside your doubts about the district, who in recent years has provided training on formative assessment and how that guides differentiated instruction.

The point that I am trying to make is that the way our district adopted this “Common Core” curriculum was decidedly not aligned with the values and skills the common core is designed to teach.  First of all, the Common Core asks students to “use tools and make strategies.”  The district is implicitly asking teachers not to create any new tools for student measurement and not to use other teacher strategies they may have picked up in their years or decades of teaching service.

Secondly, students are asked to “look for shortcuts”.  Certainly, there have been several lessons where I think to myself, “Why are you teaching this if these students, who are clearly bored, already get this?”  The answer is because the district wants standardized adoption and the principal has insisted that we teach in synch with our colleagues, regardless of the needs and abilities of our students.

Finally, the Common Core asks kids to “make sense”, to “argue”, and to “critique reasons.”  In this vein, when my colleagues and I have tried to make sense of these demands, we scratch our heads.  When we critique these policies, when we argue our points, we are rebuffed.  In other words, math is a dialogue, not a dictate.

As parents, I hope that you understand that the Common Core asks our students to be able to do some pretty sophisticated and amazing things.  All I am asking from our district is that teachers be allowed the latitude, flexibility, creativity, and autonomy to teach in ways that students need.

Math Smarts


“Teaching is mostly listening, learning is mostly telling.”
-Deborah Meier

As we dive in to the new school year, those of us in the Olympia School district will be meeting our new math curriculum, Bridges, for the first time.  Many parents will be trying to decode the words “Common Core” in the context of this new way of teaching.  The most difficult part for many will be allowing their children to struggle with (and through) the math.  This will require us to redefine the job of teachers.  This will also force us to redefine what “math smarts” are.  Even though this may be challenging, the upside is that more kids will have a stronger understanding of math concepts and more will identify themselves as mathematicians.

The job of teachers is shifting.  No longer are we the “Holders of Knowledge” whose purpose is bestowing computation fluency upon our pupils through direct instruction.  Actually, good teaching requires just the opposite: teachers are no longer the center of the classroom.  Good teachers coach their classes to work collaboratively, provide group worthy tasks that help them access key mathematical concepts, and then retreat to observe and assess, intervening only when necessary.

The idea of being “math smart” is now outdated.  First of all, as Carol Dweck points out, it leads to a fixed mindset.  If people say that Johnny has math smarts, it leads him to believe that it is an innate power that he has always had.  You either have it, or you don’t.  Most people think they don’t.  Also, many people mistakenly place far too much emphasis on getting correct answers in math, especially in computation.  This definition must now change to show that math is a verb.  It is something that we do.  The list  of math skills must now include listening, communicating clearly, helping others, asking good questions, improving reading skills, flexible thinking, struggling, persisting, and persevering.

In our new era of “Common Core” and Bridges, the most important thing that parents can do is to avoid telling kids how to do their math.  Rather, model the curiosity and inquiry that we are asking of our kids.  Please, resist the urge to show your kids the shortcuts.  No more “this is the way I learned to do it when I was a kid.”  Instead, take the time to just listen to your kid explain their thinking.  Ask them “why?”  Who knows, maybe you’ll learn something, too.

Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Jo Boaler, How to Teach Maths.
Featherstone et al., Smarter Together.