We’re All Math People. This Year, We Prove It.

We’re All Math People. This Year, We Prove It.

By Melisse May, Emily Campbell, Marina Hopkins and Tamra Ragland 

We hope this school year is a transformative time for teaching and learning math in Greater Cincinnati. And we kicked it off in style at a well-attended conference on Sept. 15 with support from Cincinnati Public Schools, Winton Woods City Schools. StrivePartnership and Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative.

Starting a movement
At our conference at Xavier University, we introduced The Math Mindset Movement (M3) to 115 educators from a dozen districts, challenging them to rethink their relationship to math and how they teach it.

How often do you hear “I am not a math person” or “I don’t have the math gene?” Our culture empathizes and accepts that mindset. You would never hear someone say: “I don’t read.” Research has shown that the genes that correlate to reading ability are the same as those for mathIf you hear someone say I’m not a math person, then tell them that they could be! 

Transforming teaching 

We want to change how students feel about and experience math, and teachers are the key to that goal. Unfortunately, math teachers themselves were often taught with “drill and kill” methods, and told they were talented in math vs. everyone can achieve in math with the right support. Research has shown that as many as one in three teachers may experience their own math anxiety, and that can spill over into the classroom.  

People with a Math Mindset overcome that anxiety. They notice and wonder, struggle and make mistakes, ask questions and work together. Math becomes fun. The conference encouraged our wonderful math educators to think deeply about similarities and differences in the experiences they provided in their classroom versus the experience mathematicians have in the field.

The workshop was intended to inspire and support. We invited national thought leader and teacher Tracy Zager to Cincinnati to convey the concept and inspire teachers to fully embrace the Math Mindset. 

Ms. Zager, author of Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had, was the perfect choice. We screened all the big names in math, reviewed their philosophy and recent talks and Ms. Zager rose to the top. 

She loved our approach of the kickoff followed by practice groups to support teachers in using math mindset in the classroom. We are having her back for additional webinars during the school year for teachers to ask questions and solicit ideas.    

Ms. Zager explained how children and teachers tend to describe math class in negative terms like memorization, boring worksheets, rigid right and wrong answers, even dread. Mathematicians flip that on its head, describing passion, joy, grace and artistry.

We liked Ms. Zager’s frame on math created by researching how mathematicians described their work.

She said they identify patterns, they struggle and persist, they ask questions, take risks, make mistakes, collaborate and use positive words to describe their work. Helping teachers and students approach math in a more joyful way with a mathematician mindset is what Ms. Zager’s book and talk was all about. 

Teachers puzzled through a tricky problem together. They broke into small groups and expressed their ideas for making math class more productive and engaging.

It was just a first step. We encouraged teachers to join Math Mindset Circles where they can practice in the classroom with the support of their peers and follow-up webinars with Ms. Zager  We will reflect on their schoolyear experiences at a showcase in late spring. 

How we started
Cincinnati Public Schools Director of Curriculum and Instruction Emily Campbell, Winton Woods City Schools Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction Tamra Ragland and Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative Entrepreneurial Innovator Melisse May started meeting for coffee at odd hours in different locations around town to talk about how we could create a real change in math capability. Marina Hopkins, director of operations at StrivePartnership, was a crucial addition to our M3 Core Team. 

This project was managed in addition to our day jobs as a labor of love. We didn’t know if we could find funding, attract a national speaker or get anyone to show up. To see it all come together and turn out so well is very exciting. 

What’s next? 
We asked teachers about their interests and that led to the math culture work and our recent event. We will keep asking teachers and respond to their needs. There’s still time to join a math circle, and we welcome ideas. Do both by emailing us at info@strivepartnership.org


Below is a story shared by one of the teachers who attended the event.

Reinvigorating my passion for math
By Becki Arlington

I learned that Tracy Zager, author of “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had,” was speaking at the Math Mindset Movement last spring and signed up immediately. I teach second grade math and science in Cincinnati Public Schools and face many challenges in the classroom, especially getting students excited and engaged in the math content. 

My students come to me with a large range of understanding, abilities and attitudes regarding math. The good news is that they are 7 and 8 years old. The bad news is, they are 7 and 8 years old. This is a hard audience to capture because their skills are so varied. I am constantly looking for opportunities to improve my practice so that I can ensure the success of all of my students. 

Strive Partnership and the other sponsors of the event get it, which is why seminars like Tracy’s provide such a great opportunity to assess and improve how well we’re teaching our middle grade students. 

Tracy started the morning by asking us to reflect on what math class felt like for us. I am thankful everyday that education has moved away from drill and practice, lectures and note taking and the memorization of formulas! 

Tracy had us dive into stacks of children’s literature and professional resources to explore some questions- What is math? Who are mathematicians? What do mathematicians do? This is powerful stuff, for teachers and students alike. This was an “aha” moment for me and most of the teachers at my table. As a science teacher I start the year with my students by exploring and asking questions about what science is in the world and in second grade. What makes us scientists? But I have not done this in math. Why not? 

I want math to be accessible to all of my students. I want my students to feel safe to take risks and make mistakes. Tracy gave us some time to step into our students’ shoes as she modeled how to do this with a great problem. It was inspiring to see a room full of adults engaged, wondering, working and discussing a rich task. It was also refreshing to have a model teacher take us through this process. Tracy reminded us all that it is a privilege to watch someone get it, to bear witness to our student’s joy as they figure out what they have been grappling with. 

This workshop gave me the opportunity to learn, explore and collaborate with educators from across the region. I feel like I left with more tools in my tool belt as well as the promise of continued collaboration and learning. I am excited to continue my studies and work with my circle group and the Math Mindset Movement. 

I’m grateful for seminars like this one that do such a good job of creating a supportive math mindset environment for elementary school students.