It's the morning after Halloween and students in Tina King's sixth-grade math class at Wredling Middle School in St. Charles are greeting her with smiles and samplings of their trick-or-treat goody bags.
But even with a sugar hangover, hands are quickly raised when a question is asked. Volunteers beg to stand up in front of the four-to-six-person tables and show their work, even if they suspect their answer is wrong.
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In King's class, being wrong isn't a badge of shame. It is a chance to learn. King will even insert mistakes in answer keys or explanations to encourage students to challenge her thinking.
"When I make a mistake, I don't try to hide it," King said. "I do my thinking out loud to pull back the veil from what's going on in my mind. Math is a complex process. There's a lot of thinking and testing ideas of how to solve a problem. And that is so much more important than the actual answer.
"We want to teach them skills about reasoning, persevering and making mistakes and learning from them. Those are skills that kids will use forever."
There's no code of silence among the students. In fact, much of the learning comes when kids explain their work to each other one-on-one or at their small group table.
In King's classroom, talking in class to your buddy is not an action you get sent to the principal's office for. And showing your work to the person necessary isn't cheating; it's a chance for a mini-private tutoring session. King said confidence and trust are huge factors in creating that kind of learning environment.
"They have to know that if they are having trouble you are going to help them," King said. "And if the person next to them is having a hard time, I'm going to help that student, too. If they don't think you care about them, you can't have a collaborative classroom.
"Once they know it is OK to be wrong, and that they are more important than fractions to me, now I have 30 teachers in my classroom. You need a collaborative environment. I could sit and do 20 problems in my math book by myself at home. So why do that at school?"
King said the group approach eliminates two of the most common fears in society -- fear that math is too hard and fear of public speaking.
She extends the collaborative approach to parents at home by sending home the answers so parents can help their students even if they don't fully know how to work the math problems out.
"Parents have the most anxiety about math," King said. "They will tell their kids, 'I can't do math,' and that's an acceptable thing to say in our society. No one would say, 'I can't read.' That's not the message we want to send to our kids about math."
King encourages all parents and community members to engage local teachers about their work and find out what really goes into the career. She said she's encountered some public perception that teachers only work until 3 p.m. and take the summers off while collecting a paycheck.
She said she takes it to heart that every student in her classes is someone else's baby, so there is much more to teaching than text books and union contracts.
"We don't do this job for praise, but we also don't do this job for money," King said. "I could have done anything I wanted in life, but I chose to become a teacher. So let's work together. I don't just show up and teach. It takes hours and hours to plan engaging lessons and think about how I'm going to motivate kids."
As King's class winds down, it's clear her students are still motivated. Many are working on math problems, discovering "aha" moments past the bell and have to scramble out to get to their next class on time.
All have smiles and kind words for King as they head out of her door. And that's why King does what she does. It's the same emotional response she first saw, and felt for herself, while volunteering to teach immigrants as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.
"I once thought that maybe I was too smart to be a teacher," King said of her early college years. "I thought maybe I needed to be a doctor or an engineer. When I volunteered, I found it wasn't easy to do.
"Teaching was a challenge. And the feelings that I got working with the kids were priceless. Just seeing how hard they would work for me because I cared about them. I knew this was something I wanted to do with my life."