I feel like I'm in kindergarten.
Often students haven't done many participatory activities since they were in early elementary school. I hear many reports that my students were so far behind in school that they didn't work with the rest of the class, rather worked alone in a workbook that the teacher marked and gave back to them. So when I ask them to use manipulatives, for example, I know they sometimes start by feeling humiliated, because in their experience, manipulatives are for babies.
I know that a student whose mind and heart is occupied with feeling humiliated and resentful about using the manipulatives will not see that 2/6 = 1/3, and since my interest is in exactly that, I'll do something to help express the feelings, so we can both get on with the job we came to do. I am happy to hear people express their own feelings without prompting, but if a student is not expressing anything, just sitting with hands in pocket, I may make a stab at identifying the emotions. I might say, "When I first started using these I felt clumsy with all these little pieces," or "Sometimes students tell me that the blocks are just for kids, and they feel silly using them." That is often enough to open the way to the student expressing the feelings, and once that is done, a rational decision can be made about if and how the manipulatives will be used.
For those who like manipulatives, it is play, and I feel child-like, not childish, when I use them. So I like to let my enjoyment of manipulative play show, and encourage students to have fun, too, but I am careful to call the manipulatives themselves "math tools" and not "math toys," which is how I think of them privately.
I'm not allowed to have opinions. I don't have any opinions worth expressing.
I know from my reading, [for example, Too Scared to Learn (Horsman, 1999), and Violence and Learning: Taking Action (Norton, 2004)], and from my experience, that students who have experienced violence may space out or act out in class, no matter how motivated they are to learn math. Particularly I notice how difficult it is for many of them to share an opinion or make a decision. Expressing an opinion has been dangerous in the past, and it is not possible to do math while avoiding expressing an opinion about how to solve a problem. Making the classroom a safe place to take risks is an art. When you involve the whole class in figuring out how to make it safe for everyone, you show your commitment to safety and offer a chance for students to say what they need to be safe.
Making the classroom safe for the many students who are survivors of trauma is beyond the scope of this manual. Jenny Horsman, Mary Norton and others have written extensively about the relationship between violence and learning, and much of their material is on line at www.nald.ca. An exciting new website being developed by Jenny Horsman is at www.learningandviolence.net.