We Are All Math People: Teaching Math Through Concepts and Connections

Anna Billa RheaEducator Insights

After seven years teaching Math and two years developing curriculum, I feel like I have heard the same statements countless times:

“I am just not a math person.”
“It’s okay to be bad at Math, some people aren’t Math people.”
“I’m a humanities teacher, I really don’t know Math. I can’t help students with their Math.”

I’ve worked in schools where every teacher is expected to be a reading teacher; we all learn reading strategies and take ownership over teaching reading – STEM Prep is one of these schools. This is a wonderful shared, collective mission. Of course reading is an essential life skill. But when did we, as a society, decide it was okay to write Math off as a nonessential skill, to accept that some people “just aren’t Math people”?

Math people are not born; they are made. While some people might be drawn toward numbers, we all have the capacity to see the beauty of Mathematics. However, we have not all had the pleasure of sitting in a Math classroom that makes Math come alive.

Yes, I was one of those people who wasn’t a Math person. When I entered the teaching profession, Math was the last subject I wanted to teach. It had been the hardest subject for me as a student. I was the student who watched my teacher teach multiplication in six different ways, but didn’t understand it until the sixth way. So, when I started teaching fifth grade, I became a Math teacher by accident, when my grade level decided to switch mid-year from being self-contained to being specialized content area teachers. I surprised myself by volunteering for Math; I just knew there was something missing in our Math curriculum, and I wanted to solve that puzzle.

It wasn’t easy. I made a lot of rookie mistakes in teaching skills and problem-solving. But, I started to notice a few trends:

  • My students would ace a weekly quiz on the topics covered that week. On unit assessments, however, two or three weeks later, student mastery of standards dropped significantly. 30-40 percentage points in disparity.
  • On cumulative assessments, students were misapplying strategies. For example, they would try to evaluate an expression with a given variable value using the solving equations strategy. They were not accurately identifying the mathematical concepts within a problem.
  • When students did choose a correct problem-solving pathway, they often executed it incorrectly. They seemed to not remember all parts of a formula or equation, for example, or were not successfully interpreting meaning from the given information.

These three trends caused frustration and sometimes led to the statement, “I am just not a Math person.” I was determined to change that mindset in my classroom. What did I do?

First, I changed my approach to unpacking a problem.

1. The goal is always for students to be able to recreate a process without the formula or rule, if they forget the rule.

2. In order to be able to recreate the learning, students have to have a flexible approach to problem solving. I have to illustrate for them how a proportion is a form of an equation or how a geometry problem is actually an algebra problem.

Let’s consider a real-world example: converting one form of currency into another using an exchange rate. As an adult, I know there is a mathematical formula for this; people who identify as “Math people” seem to just know which number to divide by which number to make the conversion come out right. For me, as a very visual problem-solver, I always set up a proportion using units, applying a method I know will work because I understand what I am really doing when I convert currency, from a mathematical standpoint.

When I began to approach Math in this way, I realized that if my students understand what a concept is, how it works, and what it represents, they will be able to recreate either method for solving a problem on paper or in the real world, OR solve the problem in pieces by applying one concept or understanding at a time. This is far more powerful than memorizing a strategy that they will forget by the next grade level.

I have always measured my success as a Math teacher by how excited my students get about being Math nerds, and when I shifted my instruction from memorizing and applying a skill to empowering students to discover the skills themselves and be able to recreate the learning when I’m not there to help them, I could see a marked shift in the enthusiasm my students have for Math. As teachers, leaders, and parents, it is our responsibility to give our children the gift of a love of Math.

And maybe, as we all embrace the beauty of Math together, we will become, and our students will know that we are all Math People.

Tune in next week for Part 2: Conceptual Instruction in the Math Classroom!

Anna Billa Rhea was born and raised in Wellesley, Massachusetts. After earning a BA in psychology with a focus on childhood language development from the University of Chicago, she spent a year in Spain on a Fulbright Grant, where she worked as a TA in a bilingual school in Madrid. Upon returning to the U.S., Anna moved to Nashville as part of the charter corps with Teach for America in Nashville, earned a M.Ed. in Education from Lipscomb University, and two years later came to STEM as the founding lead math teacher when the school opened its doors in 2011. After 7 years teaching middle school math (5 years in 5th grade, 2 years in 7th grade), Anna took on the role of Director of Curriculum and Assessment at STEM, which she currently holds. In her career at STEM as both a teacher and Director of Curriculum and Assessment, she has worked to develop a vision for high quality math instruction that focuses on conceptual understanding and authentic problem-solving.