Have an emotional reaction

I’m a big fan of James Tanton’s approach to solving difficult math problems.  Here are his steps:
Step 1.  Read the problem.
Step 2.  Have an emotional reaction to the problem.
Step 3.  Re-read the problem.
Step 4.  Do something.
I love Step 2, and I will often complain out loud in front of my students about the difficulty of a problem, the unfairness of it all.  I think it is fine to acknowledge that a problem is hard, that we hardly understand what is being asked, that we think the writer of the problem should be reincarnated as a fruit fly.
If we acknowledge our feelings of dismay and fear, then we normalize them.  When they become normal, then we can take a deep breath, re-read the problem and take a first step at a solution.  If students think their feelings of fear and dismay are not normal, they’ll begin to think they aren’t good at math.   In reality, many students (even mathy ones) react this way on the first read of a difficult problem.

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