Session 1: Put your damn hand down

Dr. Foss: Welcome to Math Rehab, what are you in for? 

Parent: My daughter won’t participate in math class… 

It is fall, 1995, and parent conference night at Mountain Valley Middle School is NOT going well for one young lady. It has come to her mother’s attention that not only is she FAILING 8th grade math, but she also refuses to participate. The HORROR! 

It went a little something like this: 

Teacher: I am sorry to tell you this, but your daughter is failing my class, she doesn’t participate in the lesson, she won’t even raise her hand. 

Mother: (completely humiliated I am sure) What is this about? Why don’t you participate? Why don’t you raise your hand? 

Student: I don’t raise my hand because I know someone else will… and they will have the right answer and I won’t. She only calls on the boys anyway. 


The student is me. Bet you didn’t see that coming. 

I think about this interaction often for a few reasons: 

  1. I am proud of my 13-year-old self for having enough teen angst to answer honestly and unapologetically. 
  2. I am CERTAIN that I am not the only girl in history who has refused to participate in a conversation that will no doubt be embarrassing and demeaning. 

There are a million reasons why this should infuriate you. Do you have a daughter? A Niece? Do you now, or have you ever known a school aged girl? If so, chances are their voice has been silenced at least once in their K-12 education. Especially in math class.

Let’s break down a typical interaction in the average American classroom: 

  1. Teacher asks a question
  2. Students who know the answer raise their hands
  3. Teacher calls on ONE student 

Then it could go one of two ways: 

A. Student answers correctly, teacher assumes that since that one student knew the correct answer that his job is done and moves on.

B. Student answers incorrectly, teacher says no and continues to call on students until someone hits the jackpot.  

I ask you, who has learned here? Student A? No. They already knew the answer, what was there to learn? Student B? No. They only know that their answer was incorrect and that they will never offer up another answer in math class again. The answer is no one. No one learned. 

Sound familiar? It should because that is the way that the majority of math classrooms in this country are structured. Yes, even with “New Math” (more on that later). 

What about the students that didn’t raise their hands? The ones like me?

They must be lazy? Lack motivation?  They didn’t eat breakfast?  Oh, I know… they just aren’t “good at math”… maybe we should get them tested? Maybe even hold them back a grade? At the very least put them in “lower level” class next year… right?


They didn’t raise their hand because they have been conditioned to stay silent, to sit and wait for it to be over in an attempt to avoid the embarrassment that comes with not knowing, the shame of not being “smart” enough. If they just let the “smart” kids answer the questions it will all be fine, the bell will ring and they can move on with their lives unscarred.

Too much? Am I being too dramatic? Too extreme? I don’t think so.  

What would happen if we stopped asking students to raise their hands?

What if instead, we started asking them what they think, what they wonder, what they understand and what they question. What if instead of choosing one out of 20 plus students to answer a question we gave all students the right to think through peer conversations? What if we stopped thinking of math as a subject of “answer getting”? What if incorrect answers are even more important than correct ones? What if, and stick with me here because I am about to say something way off the wall…

What if we let our kids use a pen? 

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