By Kass Minor [in Matt Silverman’s Classroom], circa Fall 2018

*From Human Teachers Series © all IP rights reserved

Perfection is boring. We are Ish!

We are problem solvers in life.


We will… Be Kind.  Work Hard. Make Reasonable Choices.  are all slogans posted on the walls of Matt Silverman’s classroom deep in the heart of Queens, New York.  Not just printed out slogans, or isolated charts, but strong phrases that erupt from student work surrounding and amplifying the kind of learning that Matt not only believes in, but personifies in his teaching practice.  

During the first few moments of his fourth grade general education math class I observe, including students learning English as a new language, it is clear that all things said by Matt are delivered with precision, care, and purpose.  It’s Friday, the day all students take fact challenges  when I visit Matt and his students.  Matt lets the kids bustle into the classroom after their lunch, and conjures them to their seats with not just words, but routines that have long been imprinted upon his community of learners. The students coalesce with Matt’s guidance:  

In the next five seconds, I would like for you to bring your eyes to me.  Clap one time if you can hear me (CLAP!) , two times if you can hear me (CLAP! CLAP!).  If you’re listening to me, point to me with one finger.  

The class is quiet, and the whole group initiates their community fact challenge protocol, lifting their pencils in the air, examining their multiplication facts, listening to Matt’s restorative voice, Calm your mind, calm your body, you are looking for helper facts.  Deep breath in, deep breath out. As soon as Mr. Silverman says, you may begin, the students start penciling their knowledge on paper.

The learners are using their whole bodies to figure out their facts,  backs hunched over leaning into the work, fingers sorting out their times tables, and eyes looking into the air, clearly trying to remember a fact. When it’s over two and half minutes later, they listen while their teacher’s voice guides them through what feels like a Math Meditation that I might find on HeadSpace:  

Very calmly bring your pencil to the air.  We don’t react. We don’t look for perfection, we look for improvement. Point to someone who worked hard. [students pointing around to other students everywhere]

That was just the first few minutes of math class.

Matt and his community of learners continue to follow the credo demonstrated by the slogans on their classroom walls when they move from their desks to the rug up front “in less than 15 seconds!” as directed by Matt, and participate in a Math Congress, examining a project they worked on together rooted in conceptualizing place value. For the next 25 minutes, I witness a group of thirty kids, most of whom speak more than one language, many of whom live in underserved communities, some whom come from hard spaces, exercise their minds to critically think and problem solve together, as

a community–not just with their teacher, but with one another. When a few of the same kids continuously volunteer their ideas in response to Matt’s questions, he insists that everyone is responsible for learning in their classroom space:

Who else can articulate or explain lzzie’s idea?  If your hand is not up, you should have your hand on your head.  We are all responsible for learning. I’m not going to rely on someone else.  Everyone is responsible for sitting with their idea, or thinking about a question they have. Without noise, point to a turn and talk partner to share with.  Put your hand high in the air if you do not have a partner. Show me (he says this part thunderously) with your hand on your head if you have a question. 

When Matt projects this surge of expectation and implored responsibility upon his community of learners, the kids feel it. They are compelled to begin thinking if they haven’t already, and begin to burst with ideas and questions-again, not just for Matt, but for one another.  Matt Silverman kneels and listens in with several groups of learners, and I can barely discern who is teacher and who is student. Every kid is talking…about math. 

What I see and feel and experience within the interactions that take place between Mr. Silverman and his students is an ethos of care that exists because of the hard work, conviction, and care that has been interwoven within the idea that math education is never just about the numbers; it’s about striving for something better than before, living in the problem before finding multiple solutions, and gaining confidence to be a skeptic, never accepting any solution as an absolute.

The learning this group has just experienced is palpable, like you can almost touch it. My searching mind asks, what is the story, what is the experience, the thing we can support educators with so they are better equipped to create a community of learners like Matt’s? A space where learners learn from one another, where the classroom center is embodied within each individual, where everyone is held accountable for their learning? 

For starters, we can start doing some of the same stuff Matt does, and we can call those routines and mantras teaching moves.  

  1. Have students continually use their bodies to learn throughout the lesson.  
  2. Give students opportunities to participate that do not involve having the “right” answer.
  3. Promote idea sharing, empower process over perfection 
  4. Acknowledge that learning can make us feel all sorts of things, and not always good things. It’s hard, it’s okay to feel frustrated.  Give them tools to manage their emotions.

The period is almost over, and when the group conversation has come to a close regarding place value, the students are given an independent exercise to try to solve to warm up for a new math investigation. Again, subscribing to the We are problem solvers in life credo, Matt tells his  students, 

This is not a one day problem, this is a problem solving problem.  You have to use every problem solving strategy you have. Let’s do this problem for 10 minutes, not with the expectation we are going to solve it, but with the expectation we are going to work on it. 

If you would like to and need a mental break, turn your paper over and write, this problem makes me feel…and write about how it makes you feel. 

I think Matt’s advice to his students is sound for all us educators too.  The work of teaching and learning in classroom spaces with variant learners is the infinite never-ending challenge. As we work to cultivate communities of learners that work hard and work together, we can lead the challenge not with the expectation that there is an absolute solve, but rather, the expectation that we are going to work on it. 

After I wrote about Matt, I wanted to dig into his practice more. Here’s a follow up conversation with Matt, where he surfaces his why and how:

KM (Kass Minor): How do you describe your practice and pedagogy? 

MS (Matt Silverman):  My work is rooted in constructivism. We build knowledge/understanding/questioning together with a focus on process, knowing the ‘it’ of learning is not static and sometimes not even central to one’s learning.  This belief demands student voice and student agency are catalyst of student learning.  

KM: Why do you believe your practice makes such a difference for students?

MS: Problem solving is a skill one refines and redefines throughout life.  Although it is essential to success, we limit ourselves by only thinking we are learning when we are successful.  Most problems are not solved with immediacy, so rich tasks in school help shift our idea of what a true problem is, and the processes that take in embarking upon it.

KM: Are there any game-changing texts or resources that helped you along your teaching journey, that supported the development of kid centered inquiry-based problem solving?

The Young Mathematicians at Work by Fosnot, as well as the Context for Learning series.  The Jo Boaler stuff she is publishing now is pretty awesome, strong in theory but rooted in problems to try with kids.  A Mathematicians Lament by Lockhart was kind of my bible when I first started understanding the importance of this work. Most importantly, though, the idea that no curriculum will fit my students’ needs.  I am not going to find one text or curriculum that fits my students perfectly. It is my job to craft the curriculum towards them–I see myself equal parts curriculum writer and teacher.

KM: How do you describe your practice and pedagogy to those who are used to traditional math education? 

MS: Creativity is central in math.  We must lend the excitement and responsibility of past mathematicians embarking on conjecture to our young mathematicians as they build ideas.  These big mathematical ideas are there to be discovered, not given, by educators. It is important to discern why any assignment is worth our valuable teaching time, and if it is not high leverage, rich, and appropriately challenging, it is most likely a waste of everyone’s’ time.