“The universe cannot be read until we have learned the language… in which it is written. And it is written in mathematical language.”
“They’re a special breed!” NDP Director of Communications, Cami Colarossi, responded with her own admiration to my observation about the triumvirate of middle school math teachers I had just come from interviewing.
“I can’t get over how enthusiastic and passionate they all are about math!” I had reported to Cami. “It really, really matters to them that the girls not only learn math, but embrace it. They spoke so excitedly about the subject, I couldn’t take notes fast enough during the interview!” As if to prove my point, I showed Cami my notes and asked, “What does that say? Can you even read that?” Cami peered over her glasses and studied the chicken scratch on my pad for a moment before venturing a guess:
“Polynomial?” she offered.
“Mmm. Maybe.” I responded, not entirely sure…
Now, you might think that women with the kind of math pedigrees and credentials the 3 NDP teachers have, would aspire to the math department at MIT or the C suite of some corporation. They are all undoubtedly qualified to do so. But it is precisely their love of math and their determination to instill that love in others that led them to teach at the middle school level. Teacher Mary Agnes Sheridan, who previously worked in the research industry and taught math at the university level in Boston, explained it this way:
“Kids, especially girls, need to understand that they can do math and that it’s fun! They need to feel empowered. And so, if you’re going to build a strong math culture in this country, you’ve got to start in middle school. That’s what I think is important and that’s what brought me here.”
Fellow teacher, Bridget Sheehey, who formerly worked in data analysis as a statistician for Proctor and Gamble, agreed.
“Math will get you hired,” she testified point-blankly, as she nibbled at her lunch. But for middle schoolers who aren’t thinking quite that far ahead, she added, “Besides, it’s cool to love math. It’s got its own language. You just have to take concepts and translate them into the language of math. I call it ‘Mathlish.’ Everyone should be fluent in it. It’s like poetry. In fact, there’s a mixer coming up soon and I told the girls that if they speak like that at a dance, the boys will flock to them.” I am not sure what personal experience or scientific data Ms. Sheehey based her hypothesis on but she spoke with great confidence, so I took her pointer at face value. Far be it from me. Besides, sitting there, I flashed back to my own mixer days and recalled with a shudder that I certainly was no expert in the art of flirtation.
13 Year-Old Me: Hi.
13-Year-Old Boy: Huh?
13 Year-Old Me: Uh…
13-Year-Old Boy: What?
So sure, why not a little sweet Mathlish whispered in a boy’s ear?
“One of my students told me that if a boy does ask for her phone number, she’s going to give it to him in the language of math,” Ms. Sheehey announced triumphantly.
8th Grade Girl: “My phone number? Sure. If y = 8, then my number is the square root of 64 minus pi plus 3 to the third power…”
8th Grade Boy (smitten): “Whoa. Wait a minute. Let me get a pen…”
I say, it’s worth a try.
“So, if math is so cool, why do you think so many previous generations struggled with it? Especially girls?” I wondered.
“Because…because they didn’t understand…”
“…They didn’t understand a lot of things. They didn’t understand the language…”
“…They didn’t understand it’s usefulness…,” the 3 teachers all answered at once.
Stacy Wilson, who was a statistician in the pharmaceutical industry before becoming a teacher, sees all that as a challenge and one to be embraced.
“If a student says to me, ‘I don’t get it, I’m not seeing it,’ ” I say, ‘Don’t worry. No problem. I’ve got 5 other ways I can show it to you,’ ” she said as her excitement grew. “Are you a visual learner? Are you an aural learner? Spacial? Tactile? You need to work it out on the board? You need real world examples? I can provide them all. There’s nothing more satisfying then seeing the light bulb go on in a child’s head when she finally gets something,” Stacy said with real joy. She took genuine pride in being able to work with all kinds of learners and think the way they do.
I sat in on a couple of classes and observed how, indeed, the teachers used a variety of methods and tools – including real world applications, white boards, art, color tiles, onomatopoeia, and even corny rhymes – to convey their lesson. During one 6th grade class, I settled in next to an adorable little girl named Ellie Lippa, who calmly worked on a problem in front of her.
“Is it hard?” I whispered to Ellie.
“No,” she whispered back politely.
“It looks hard,” I observed.
“Well, it’s not really. See, ’cause, we practice a lot and, well, you know what they say…” Ellie said, leaving me hanging.
“Well,” she said with an ever so slight but terribly polite ‘isn’t it obvious’ tone, “Practice makes perfect.” And then she smiled at me with the sweetest smile that nevertheless conveyed the idea that she just might feel a tiny bit sorry for me if I couldn’t do the ‘simple’ mathematical problem she herself was solving with apparent ease.
“Ah, of course. Thank you, Ellie.” And then she patiently showed me how to open the color tile case I was fumbling with in order to do the next algebra problem.
“Math,” Mary Agnes Sheridan explained, “is all about problem solving and critical thinking. They’re skills you will need every day and for the rest of your life.” It’s true, of course. Math is not an isolated subject, apart from all the other disciplines. In fact, it underlies just about every other subject of study.
“In all our classes,” Bridget explained further, “We’ll say, ‘OK. We have this new skill and new language. Now, how are we going to use it? To that end, we always end every lesson with a word problem. We put a mathematical problem into a real world situation so that the girls can see the practical applications. Not only in the world around them, but in their very own and immediate lives.”
In addition to teaching important math skills, the middle school math department also does a lot to stimulate an interest in and love of math. To that end, they have math bulletin boards throughout the school with math problems and math trivia contests as well as displays about careers in math, math and sports, famous female mathematicians, and more.
In math, there is very little grey area. Once a mathematical formula or structure is proven to be true, it can provide insight into, well, just about everything, as Galileo suggested nearly 500 years ago. That’s why there is one other thing these three NDP teachers emphasize in their math classes. And that is the importance of understanding and learning from mistakes. Perhaps the best lesson of them all.