What Are Your Students’ Assets?

student writing on VNPS

Here is a question to ask yourself right now: “What is an asset that each of my students possesses?” If you can easily answer this for each student you teach, refine the question to, “What is a mathematical problem-solving asset that each student possesses?” If you struggle to answer these questions, it is time to get to work building relationships with your students. 

In our roles as coaches, too often we hear teachers blaming students.

  • “They don’t understand this because they don’t do their homework.”
  • “They can’t understand this lesson because they are at a 3rd grade reading level.”
  • “They didn’t retain anything from last year.”
  • “I need to cut this out of the lesson because half of the students in this class have an IEP.”

Worse yet, although it may seem like a teacher is being discreet when they make these types of statements, eventually someone overhears them, leaving a student with the knowledge that their teacher doesn’t believe they are capable of learning. What seemed like a comment that might justify the teacher’s practice turns into a barrier to building a relationship with a student. Maya Angelou has a famous quote that is relevant here: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

What if we shifted the narrative from blaming students to one of collective responsibility and support? It is crucial for us to recognize that all students come with unique backgrounds, identities, and strengths to contribute to the classroom. Focusing on students’ deficits can be counterproductive by inadvertently sending a message to students that their efforts are not enough and that they do not belong. By assuming responsibility, teachers not only improve academic outcomes but also contribute to the well-being and confidence of their students. In the words of Ken Williams, the author of Ruthless Equity, “It’s not about blame shifting, it’s about owning it.” 

Consider all the reasons students might be behind.

  • Long term sub the year before?
  • Pandemic?
  • Chronic illness with the student or family member?
  • Being a member of a traveling sports team?
  • Relocation?
  • New teacher mid-year?
  • Unstable home life?
  • Large, loving, and boisterous family?

The list of possible reasons could go on and on. We can spend our time and energy thinking about what damaged our students’ mathematical abilities, but what is more important is to ask, “What can we do to mitigate any negative effects these events might have on students’ mathematical identities?”

Identify Assets that Describe How Students Learn

Articulating the assets of students is challenging. It is more valuable to all stakeholders when teachers describe these assets in terms of how students learn rather than in terms of what discrete concepts students are proficient with.

For example, when describing discrete concepts, you might say that a student is good at factoring, but that is only relevant if the students are working on problems that require factoring. Or you could say that a student is supportive of their teammates, which is relevant most days in the classroom. You could say a student is able to identify quantities in practical situations using diagrams, two-way tables, graphs, flowcharts, or formulas.

However, researchers have established other ways to describe student assets. One way is to use the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMPs), as seen in the left-hand column of the table. These are relatively well-known, originating from the Common Core State Standards. While they are a great starting place, it is important to note that these were designed to “describe varieties of expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students” (italics added for emphasis). These SMPs may be great at describing students’ mathematical abilities, but they seem to fall short of being able to describe the student as a whole.

This is where the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) Framework could come into play. This framework, as shown in the right-hand column of the table, was designed with the idea that we are all part of a broader system that shapes not only learning but student development and experiences as well. Rather than just focusing on mathematical competencies, the CASEL Framework was designed to “foster knowledge, skills, and attitudes” and “establish equitable learning environments.”

Standards for Mathematical Practice CASEL Social Emotional Competencies
Make Sense of Problems
Reason Abstractly
Reason Quantitatively
Construct Viable Arguments
Critique the Reasoning of Others
Model with Mathematics
Use Tools Appropriately
Attend to Precision
Look for Structures
Use Structures
Look for Patterns
Use Patterns
Social Awareness
Positive Communication
Responsible Decision Making
Social Responsibility

Now think of a student in your classroom.

  • Do any of the words in the table describe assets that the student possesses?
  • Can you support that student in their study team by leveraging this language?
  • When you discuss how the student is doing with their guardian, could these words help you describe how that student operates in your classroom?

Thinking about student assets using these terms can support teachers in developing and cultivating those assets not just in a single student, or in a single classroom, but in the entire culture of learning mathematics at your site. Your teaching team can step away from the blame game and take action on these practices and competencies. By reversing the narrative and discussing student assets, you might impact your students’ perceptions of teaching and learning mathematics. Teachers who embrace vulnerability might even think about which of the assets on this list they possess and how they were able to develop those assets.

John Hayes & Ashley Boyd

John Hayes & Ashley Boyd

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Algebra Tiles Blue Icon

Algebra Tiles Session

  • Used throughout CPM middle and high school courses
  • Concrete, geometric representation of algebraic concepts.
  • Two-hour virtual session,
  •  Learn how students build their conceptual understanding of simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Solving equations using these tools.  
  • Determining perimeter,
  • Combining like terms,
  • Comparing expressions,
  • Solving equations
  • Use an area model to multiply polynomials,
  • Factor quadratics and other polynomials, and
  • Complete the square.
  • Support the transition from a concrete (manipulative) representation to an abstract model of mathematics..

Foundations for Implementation

This professional learning is designed for teachers as they begin their implementation of CPM. This series contains multiple components and is grounded in multiple active experiences delivered over the first year. This learning experience will encourage teachers to adjust their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers and leaders will gain first-hand experience with CPM with emphasis on what they will be teaching. Throughout this series educators will experience the mathematics, consider instructional practices, and learn about the classroom environment necessary for a successful implementation of CPM curriculum resources.

Page 2 of the Professional Learning Progression (PDF) describes all of the components of this learning event and the additional support available. Teachers new to a course, but have previously attended Foundations for Implementation, can choose to engage in the course Content Modules in the Professional Learning Portal rather than attending the entire series of learning events again.

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Building on Instructional Practice Series

The Building on Instructional Practice Series consists of three different events – Building on Discourse, Building on Assessment, Building on Equity – that are designed for teachers with a minimum of one year of experience teaching with CPM instructional materials and who have completed the Foundations for Implementation Series.

Building on Equity

In Building on Equity, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Essential questions include: How do I shift dependent learners into independent learners? How does my own math identity and cultural background impact my classroom? The focus of day one is equitable classroom culture. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture. The focus of day two and three is implementing equitable tasks. Participants will develop their use of the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Meaningful Mathematical Discussions and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will use an equity lens to reflect on and revise their Chapter 1 lesson plans.

Building on Assessment

In Building on Assessment, participants will apply assessment research and develop methods to provide feedback to students and inform equitable assessment decisions. On day one, participants will align assessment practices with learning progressions and the principle of mastery over time as well as write assessment items. During day two, participants will develop rubrics, explore alternate types of assessment, and plan for implementation that supports student ownership. On the third day, participants will develop strategies to monitor progress and provide evidence of proficiency with identified mathematics content and practices. Participants will develop assessment action plans that will encourage continued collaboration within their learning community.

Building on Discourse

In Building on Discourse, participants will improve their ability to facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse. This learning experience will encourage participants to adjust their instructional practices in the areas of sharing math authority, developing independent learners, and the creation of equitable classroom environments. Participants will plan for student learning by using teaching practices such as posing purposeful questioning, supporting productive struggle, and facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse. In doing so, participants learn to support students collaboratively engaged with rich tasks with all elements of the Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices incorporated through intentional and reflective planning.