Education & Family

How listening to students’ stories can improve math class

For Paris, having a instructor acknowledge feelings in math class was humanizing. “She recognized my experience as a part of this really big experience that so many other people have. And that was really validating,” Paris mentioned.

Strong devotes a couple of hours to studying the letters, making notes about broad patterns and particular person particulars. “It’s the beginning of an ongoing story between you and the students and their math experience for that semester or year, and it’s really important to start by listening to them well,” she mentioned.

Hierarchy in math schooling

Strong teaches at High Tech High and its Graduate School of Education in San Diego. She developed the Dear Math routine virtually a decade in the past, and she or he printed a guide about it, Dear Math: Why Kids Hate Math And What Teachers Can Do About It, co-authored by her former scholar Gigi Butterfield. In it, the instructor and former scholar mirror on the themes throughout a whole bunch of letters. One pervasive theme is hierarchy.

“Kids as young as kindergarten and first grade are defining themselves as good at math or not good at math,” mentioned Amy Parks, an elementary math schooling researcher at Michigan State University. Much of that definition comes from how they rank amongst classmates – from timed assessments, to ‘high’ and ‘low’ teams, to delicate cues in lecturers’ language. “I’ve been in classrooms where teachers have had kids line up by how many questions they answered or how many things they got right,” Parks mentioned. “These hierarchies get reinforced so often and in so many different ways it’s almost overwhelming.”

For many youngsters, the comparisons add up to a destructive self-perception round math. And by the point they attain high faculty, that mathematical identification can really feel immutable. But math class doesn’t have to be this manner. “Teachers and parents can affect the way kids think about these things,” mentioned Rachel Lambert, a professor and researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara.

There’s a cussed cultural myth that some of us are “math people” and some of us aren’t. This concept will get repeated explicitly on a regular basis, and infrequently implicitly with gendered and racialized associations. But neuroscience exhibits that everyone is capable of learning math, and Lambert mentioned it matters that kids hear that. “Students connect subjects to teachers in a pretty intense way that I think as adults we often forget. So if they feel their math teacher believes in them as a human being and believes in their competence in mathematics, that can make a huge difference,” she mentioned.

In Strong’s classroom, listening to college students’ stories is step one towards disrupting these hierarchies. She additionally seems to be for methods to spotlight college students’ mathematical considering every day. One means she does that is by having a number of college students write their problem-solving concepts on the whiteboard and asking different college students to touch upon what they like concerning the methods they see. Another routine is an exit ticket that asks college students to share one thing they discovered from a classmate that day. She would possibly share the small print the subsequent day with a scholar who was talked about or with the entire class if there’s an even bigger lesson in it.

Math is for everybody

Isabela Avila, one other of Strong’s former college students, mentioned these sorts of practices created a way of group: “It was never even like a question of did you get it right or wrong. It just seemed like we were always just all learning together as a class.” She had Strong as a instructor twice and wrote Dear Math letters each instances. In her letter as a sophomore, her self-doubts confirmed up within the first sentence:

Dear Math, I actually such as you, however you don’t come naturally to me. I’ve to work further onerous to perceive and totally conceptualize what you’ve gotten to provide.

In her letter as a senior, Avila wrote about her math development over the prior two years:

I developed a way of endurance and open mindedness for the primary time ever. … I do know this may assist me so much in faculty and past, and I look ahead to utilizing it sooner or later.

When Avila obtained to the extremely competitive atmosphere of Johns Hopkins University, nevertheless, the standard order of issues returned. “I really struggled a lot with comparing myself, especially in math,” she mentioned, discussing her freshman 12 months. “And I just found that to be super, super counterproductive for both my learning and my self esteem.”

Strong mentioned her personal math story has had plenty of highs and lows, too. Though she can’t defend college students from the methods math is taught and talked about past her classroom, her hope is that earlier than they depart high faculty, “they start to see themselves as mathematicians in new ways and that they start to see their peers as mathematically brilliant in new ways.”

For Avila, the persistence she developed in high faculty did repay within the lengthy, emotionally robust hours of school calculus. “I feel like how you think about yourself and how fast you are to get back up and keep trying is really, truly so much more important than if you can actually do the math,” she mentioned.

Fast and sluggish

Paris, Strong’s former scholar who appreciated expressing her feelings in a Dear Math letter, nonetheless remembers the heart-racing stress that accompanied timed multiplication tests in third grade. In Strong’s classroom, she mentioned, there was by no means a timer. When Paris wanted further help, Strong introduced out outdated algebra textbooks to reinforce foundational ideas. She designed initiatives the place Paris may make connections between math and artwork – a topic that she already beloved. Most importantly, Strong helped Paris find out how to break down advanced issues into smaller steps. “Which is such a simple concept, but it didn’t even cross my mind that I could do that in math,” mentioned Paris. “And that taking my time in math meant that I was being a mathematician.”

“Many students have this conception that they’re the only one who’s taking time to understand this concept, that everybody around them has already got it,” mentioned Lambert, the UC Santa Barbara professor. Lambert recommended that lecturers can cut back the push of the pacing calendar by considering of it not as going slowly however selecting the place to make investments time. “You can’t do every standard every year with your students. You have to figure out what is worth investment, and then spend more time with those topics so that students feel that they have enough time learning those things,” she mentioned.

In Strong’s view, this requires shifting away from math instruction that’s constructed across the concepts the instructor needs to get to in a given interval. Student-centered instruction requires much more listening, she mentioned: “Listening first off to their stories and how they’re showing up to class, and then second off (listening to) the ways that they are thinking of and understanding and making sense of mathematical ideas.”

Paris, who had Strong as a instructor for 3 years, mentioned that point remodeled her. She now works at a bridal store, the place she was just lately promoted from stylist to gross sales supervisor – a task that includes plenty of math. “​​If I want to teach my stylists how to increase their productivity in their sales, then I need to think like a mathematician and come up with the ways that I can do that,” she defined. In tenth grade, that may have scared her. Not now. “There’s no reason for me to be afraid of math because I’ve proven to myself time and time again that I can do it,” she mentioned.

Episode transcript

Kara Newhouse: Welcome to MindShift, the place we discover the way forward for studying and the way we elevate our children. I’m Kara Newhouse.

Nimah Gobir: And I’m Nimah Gobir.


Kara Newhouse: Today we’re speaking about math.

Nimah Gobir: Because it includes numbers and formulation, we regularly consider math as simple and goal.

Kara Newhouse: But studying math is definitely filled with feelings. I met a high faculty instructor who begins the 12 months with an uncommon project. She has her college students write a letter to math, describing their emotions concerning the topic. Here’s that instructor, Sarah Strong.

Sarah Strong: A Dear Math letter is a letter that college students write to math as if math have been personified sitting throughout the desk from them. … And it actually helps inform lecturers higher perceive the scholars stories and experiences that they’re coming to class with in order that lecturers can higher design math experiences for college students to thrive and flourish in math class.

Kara Newhouse: We’ll hear extra from Sarah later within the episode. First, right here’s a part of a Dear Math letter from certainly one of her former college students, Taylor Paris.


Taylor Paris: [Reading letter] Dear math, Oh, do I’ve some issues to say to you. You’ve adopted me all through each faculty 12 months, precipitated me the worst complications, and given me quite a few counts of tension simply occupied with you … The reminiscences of my seventh grade math instructor telling me, ‘Maybe you’re simply not a math person’ nonetheless ringing in my head, and the fixed Bs and Cs are nonetheless imprinted in my thoughts. You’ve been a by no means ending problem and wrestle, and it’s at all times been onerous to perceive you. No matter what number of instances my buddies and lecturers clarify you, I by no means grasp you utterly.

Kara Newhouse: The anxiousness and frustration that Taylor described in her letter are acquainted emotions for a lot of younger individuals. And by the point college students get to high faculty, it can really feel like in the event that they don’t perceive math now, they by no means will.

Nimah Gobir: But math doesn’t have to be this manner.

Kara Newhouse: When we get again from the break, we’ll hear extra about Dear Math letters and the way they assist college students like Taylor strengthen their mathematical identities.

Kara Newhouse: Taylor Paris graduated high faculty a couple of years in the past, however she nonetheless remembers the primary week of tenth grade math together with her instructor Sarah Strong. That’s when college students wrote letters to math, as if it have been a person.

Taylor Paris: And I keep in mind being so excited as a result of principally you’re writing in math, and that’s by no means the case.

Kara Newhouse: Interdisciplinary studying permits college students to take into consideration a topic from new views. For Taylor, writing the Dear Math letter gave her an opportunity to mirror on how her early faculty years formed her relationship to math.

Taylor Paris: I keep in mind, my first, like, scariness of math was lengthy division, as a result of it was like so summary to me, and everybody round me understood it and was identical to, ‘Yeah, well that’s simply the best way it’s and that’s completely superb.’

Kara Newhouse: Writing about these reminiscences was cathartic. It additionally helped Taylor really feel linked to her instructor.

Taylor Paris: I’ve by no means had a math instructor speak about feelings behind math ever. Like, actually ever … She acknowledged my expertise as part of this actually huge expertise that so many different individuals have. And that was actually validating.

Kara Newhouse: Her instructor, Sarah Strong, additionally made it clear that it was okay for these emotions to floor all year long. Which made it doable for Taylor to give attention to really studying math.

Taylor Paris: She did an ideal job at making me really feel like I may take a very advanced drawback and break it down to the naked bones of it, which is such a easy idea. But it didn’t even cross my thoughts that I may do this in math and that taking my time in math meant that I used to be being a mathematician. And that’s what mathematicians did, was take their time and work on issues slowly to actually perceive each side.

Kara Newhouse: When I met Taylor, she had simply been promoted from a stylist to a gross sales supervisor at a bridal store in San Diego. That’s a vogue job that includes plenty of math.

Taylor Paris: So stylists are liable for clearly, you understand, the customer support facet of issues, however on the gross sales facet, there’s a sure purpose that you simply want to meet or would ideally meet day to day and form of week to day, month to day. … And so when you concentrate on it, gross sales is like one huge math drawback every single day as a result of there’s a query, there’s a solution that you’ve got to get to, after which there’s variables that go into, you understand, the reply to your drawback, basically.

Kara Newhouse: Taylor is 20. Not that way back, doing a math-related job would have been unimaginable to her.

Taylor Paris: If you advised sophomore 12 months Taylor that I’d be doing one thing that was straight correlated with math and numbers on a regular basis, I’d be terrified and possibly chuckle.

Kara Newhouse: Taylor had Sarah Strong as a math instructor from 10th grade by 12th grade. She mentioned that these years completely modified her view of math.

Taylor Paris: And so whereas I’ll have been scared to take a gross sales supervisor place at, you understand, in my sophomore 12 months, it makes a ton of sense for me now as a result of what I do is assist individuals discover their marriage ceremony gown. And who would have thought that math was find a marriage gown?


Kara Newhouse: Taylor now sees herself as a doer of math. This is what’s referred to as mathematical identification.

Nimah Gobir: We did an episode that includes Chris Emdin, who talked about college students’ STEM identities. Mathematical identification is one type of a STEM identification.

Sarah Strong: Mathematical identification is a means that college students see themselves as a mathematician, and due to this fact it connects to the ways in which they enter into mathematical areas and join with different mathematicians round them.

Kara Newhouse: That’s instructor Sarah Strong once more. She created the Dear Math exercise throughout an even bigger venture the place college students have been exploring their mathematical identities. They have been utilizing several types of math as metaphors for his or her experiences. And Sarah wished to add a writing element to that venture.

Sarah Strong: And certainly one of my colleagues shared with me the thought of writing letters to a factor like books or basketball, and the way she’d heard of that observe. And she thought I may do Dear Math letters, and I believed that was a tremendous concept. So I ran with it.

Kara Newhouse: The letters have been highly effective. And Sarah realized that having college students write them initially of the 12 months may assist her educate every class higher. 

Here’s how she does it now. She introduces the project throughout the first week of faculty. She reads her personal Dear Math letter as a mannequin, as a result of most college students aren’t used to writing in math class. Hearing her letter additionally lets them know that despite the fact that she teaches math, it hasn’t at all times been simple for her.

Nimah Gobir: After studying her letter, Sarah provides her college students prompts for writing their very own. Questions like…

  • What is certainly one of your biggest mathematical strengths?
  • How do you propose to interact with math sooner or later?
  • What would you want extra of in math lecture rooms?

Kara Newhouse: They spend 15 to 30 minutes writing in class. Anyone who needs to write extra can end at dwelling.

Nimah Gobir: Then Sarah reads the letters on her personal. She says that is crucial step.

Sarah Strong: ‘Cause it’s the start of an ongoing story between you and the scholars and their math expertise for that semester or 12 months, and it’s actually vital to start by listening to them nicely.

Kara Newhouse: She first seems to be for broad patterns throughout the class.

Sarah Strong: If I’ve obtained a disproportionate quantity of scholars that hate math, don’t suppose they’re mathematicians, that I’ve to be actually intentional about my class design, the place I’m repeatedly noticing and calling out their mathematical strengths and giving them alternatives to see themselves as mathematicians and see one another as mathematicians. Or do I’ve plenty of college students who, who really feel like ‘I am a really strong mathematician. Ever since I was young, I get all the right answers. I’m actually quick.’ Then I can word that that’s a development within the class and be considering how I can proceed to push these college students whereas additionally broadening their understanding of how they’re mathematical and the way vital it’s to additionally hear to different college students’ methods of being mathematical.

Kara Newhouse: She additionally reads the letters for particular person particulars about issues college students love and issues that journey them up. She would possibly make a couple of notes and …

Sarah Strong: Check in with college students like, ‘Gosh, I remember you said that you had a really hard time with the idea of percents and like whenever percents come up, you panic. Well, tomorrow we’re going to want some percents in our work with exponential features. And so I wished to just remember to knew that I imagine that you simply’ve obtained this. If you need to do some observe beforehand, we can do this as a result of I need you to really feel assured. I don’t need some story from sixth grade impacting your confidence in what we’re engaged on proper now.’

Kara Newhouse: Sarah mentioned that getting to know college students was at all times vital to her. Even earlier than she created the Dear Math project.

Sarah Strong: I’d typically attempt to join with them in a wide range of methods and I’d hear their feedback right here and there that have been each constructive and destructive. And I at all times tried to be a very good listener and perceive my college students’ emotions.

Kara Newhouse: But she wasn’t at all times getting a full image.

Sarah Strong: Sometimes I believe I used to be being a little bit delusional earlier than I obtained to hear their complete stories as a result of I’d suppose, ‘Oh, they had really negative experiences. They don’t like math, however now that they’re in my class, every little thing’s going to be superb.’

Kara Newhouse: The letters helped her take off her rose-colored glasses.

Sarah Strong: It wasn’t till I started having them write Dear Math letters that I obtained to hear extra full stories and achieve an even bigger image for his or her earlier expertise and the way these experiences have been informing the methods they have been displaying up to my class.

Kara Newhouse: That data allows her to assist college students develop as math learners all year long.

Sarah Strong: My greatest hope is that they start to see themselves as mathematicians in new methods and that they start to see their friends as mathematically good in new methods.


Kara Newhouse: Nimah, it might be nice if writing a Dear Math letter helped all college students see themselves as able to doing math – the best way it did for Taylor Paris.

Nimah Gobir: It would. But in fact not each scholar’s math story is linear.

Kara Newhouse: No… Some math stories go up and down over time, like a periodic perform. 

Nimah Gobir: Hey, good math analogy! 

Kara Newhouse: I obtained that one from Sarah Strong. She described her personal math story that means. It additionally applies to one other of her former college students, Isabela Avila. Here’s the start of a Dear Math letter Isabela wrote in tenth grade.

Isabela Avila: [Reading letter] Dear Math, I actually such as you, however you don’t come naturally to me. I’ve to work further onerous to perceive and totally conceptualize what you’ve gotten to provide.

Kara Newhouse: In earlier math courses, Isabela felt pressure to at all times be quick and have the precise reply. But she advised me that expectation wasn’t there in Sarah Strong’s class.

Isabela Avila: It was by no means even like a query of like, did you get it proper or incorrect? It was simply appeared like we have been at all times simply all studying collectively, as a class.

Kara Newhouse: That sense of togetherness mattered. 

Isabela Avila: And like, I believe that actually helped me like primary, like, suppose extremely of myself as like an issue solver and in addition … be assured in my concepts.

Kara Newhouse: Isabela had Sarah Strong as a instructor twice, and she or he wrote a Dear Math letter each instances. You can hear her elevated confidence within the letter she wrote as a senior.

Isabela Avila: [Reading letter] The most mathematical development I really feel I’ve ever skilled was throughout my junior 12 months. I felt assured in my algebra abilities for the primary time ever. … My mindset additionally shifted drastically. I developed a way of endurance and open mindedness for the primary time ever. … I do know this may assist me so much in faculty and past, and I look ahead to utilizing it sooner or later. Sincerely, Isabela Avila.

Kara Newhouse: When Isabela really obtained to faculty, the transition was rocky. She’s a pre-med main at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Isabela Avila: Our like math division is understood for being like notoriously onerous.

Kara Newhouse: All round her, Isabela noticed classmates who had come from elite high colleges and appeared to perceive calculus extra simply than she did.

Isabela Avila: I actually struggled so much with like evaluating myself, particularly in math. And I simply discovered that to be tremendous, tremendous counter-productive for each my studying and like my self-worth.

Kara Newhouse: Sometimes she would break down crying whereas doing homework, which may take eight hours to full. In class, she didn’t take part as a lot as she had hoped to.

Isabela Avila: I simply actually didn’t need to sound like I didn’t know what I used to be speaking about or like, not that I don’t belong there, however I don’t know. It was simply, everybody round me was so sensible. And I do know, like, assessments don’t outline you, however everybody round me, like, even when they have been beginning in calc one, they, like, obtained fives on just like the AP calc exams and did exceptionally nicely.

Kara Newhouse: Back in high faculty, Isabela had written in certainly one of her letters that she’d had plenty of highs and lows with math. Freshman 12 months of school was positively one other low.

When I talked to her throughout her sophomore 12 months at Johns Hopkins, being a premed main was nonetheless very nerve-racking. Something that helped, although, was making buddies who didn’t speak about grades.

Isabela Avila: We don’t speak about, like, what rating we obtained. We don’t speak about how we’re doing within the class. We don’t speak about — truthfully we don’t speak that a lot about like our precise like faculty. 

Kara Newhouse: And she mentioned the persistence that she developed in high faculty did assist her get by calculus.

Isabela Avila: Especially in math right here in faculty, like, I really feel like how you concentrate on your self and like how briskly you might be to like, get again up and preserve attempting is absolutely, actually a lot extra vital than when you can really do the math.


Nimah Gobir: Kara, the best way Isabela in contrast herself to her calculus classmates isn’t distinctive to being at a college filled with high achievers.

Kara Newhouse: That’s proper. Sarah Strong mentioned these comparisons have been pervasive in college students’ Dear Math letters. And in accordance to consultants, this sort of considering begins early.

Nimah Gobir: Researchers say even kindergarteners start to discover their spot within the pecking order of math skill.

Kara Newhouse: It typically begins with these one-minute math quizzes that so many people keep in mind.

[Sound of pencils scribbling and slamming down]

Nimah Gobir: Students would possibly hear their classmates furiously scribbling solutions and slamming their pencils down after they end. They equate that with being “good” at math.

Kara Newhouse: And there are many different methods at school that college students are ranked and sorted. In youthful grades, lecturers typically group college students by skill after they’re practising math. In higher grades, college students could get tracked into ‘regular’ and ‘advanced’ courses. 

Nimah Gobir: Some lecturers will even publicly show youngsters’ progress in sure math abilities. This can appear like a bulletin board that makes use of paper ice cream scoops to signify what number of multiplication details every scholar is aware of.

Kara Newhouse: One researcher I talked to had plenty of concepts about how to disrupt hierarchies in math schooling. This is Rachel Lambert, from University of California, Santa Barbara.

Rachel Lambert: I believe if there’s one one factor I’d like to talk, it’s that lecturers and fogeys can have an effect on the best way youngsters take into consideration this stuff.

Kara Newhouse: Rachel shared 5 tips that lecturers can use to assist youngsters cease evaluating themselves to others in math. The first tip is to change the narrative about who can do math.

Rachel Lambert: Students would inform me how a lot it mattered to them to hear their instructor say, ‘There is no difference in who can be good at math.’ Like very clear messages round race and gender and the clear message that there isn’t any one group of individuals that’s higher in math than different individuals, these college students advised me that was useful to them.

Kara Newhouse: Changing the narrative isn’t nearly what we are saying to youngsters. It’s additionally about how lecturers speak to one another. And how they group college students in class.

Rachel Lambert: We would possibly suppose as lecturers – and I used to be a instructor for over 10 years – that youngsters don’t know that we may be calling them low youngsters or high youngsters once we’re having lunch with different lecturers. … But they know, they at all times know and so they know the way they’re being grouped and categorised and seen. … If we resolve that youngsters are going to do nicely in arithmetic, we do plenty of issues in our instructing to set them up for fulfillment day after day. If we expect youngsters will fail once we hand them a mathematical process, we’re doing delicate issues to set them up for failure each single time we do this. So if we put them in teams that by no means change, we’re instructing them who they’re and we’re additionally affecting who they develop into, as a result of we’re solely permitting them alternatives to do issues quote-unquote at their degree. 

Kara Newhouse: Rachel’s second tip for lecturers is to cease specializing in pace. 

Rachel Lambert: Think of it not as a matter of going sluggish. Think of it as investing in sure issues. So you can’t hit every little thing in your pacing calendar. You can’t do each customary yearly together with your college students. You have to determine what’s value funding and what’s value further time, after which spend extra time with these matters in order that college students really feel that they’ve sufficient time studying these issues.

Kara Newhouse: Her third tip is to normalize errors. It can assist college students study from one another’s considering when you’ve gotten them share their errors. Rachel advised me a couple of instructor who did this.

Rachel Lambert: She would even put a little bit coronary heart subsequent to a mistake and she or he’d be, ‘This was my favorite mistake of the day.’ And she drew a little bit coronary heart subsequent to it. And the children would go, ‘awww.’ It’s lovely.

Kara Newhouse: Tip quantity 4 is to give college students issues that can be approached from a number of angles.

Rachel Lambert: I see that some youngsters actually love to interact within the visible side of an issue. Other college students like to make, say, an organized record. And that doesn’t imply – there’s no such factor as studying types; it doesn’t imply that that’s the best way they’re going to strategy each drawback, nevertheless it does imply that an issue that pulls on a number of methods of participating can be extra wealthy mathematically and in addition disrupt concepts of who’s one of the best at math and who isn’t.

Kara Newhouse: Rachel Lambert’s fifth and last tip is to make helps out there to everybody.

Rachel Lambert: That is the one of many easiest interventions you can do in math to make it extra equitable … And it doesn’t ship any destructive messages to youngsters as a result of they’re selecting if they need to use a calculator. They are selecting if they need to hear the instructions a second time. They are selecting in the event that they use manipulatives.

Kara Newhouse: Making these assets out there to everybody takes the instructor’s assumptions out of the equation. And it helps youngsters develop the talents to acknowledge what they want to succeed.


Nimah Gobir: Kara, there are some individuals who say math lecturers ought to simply give attention to content material. That actions like writing letters to math are extra about shallowness than studying.

Kara Newhouse: These objectives don’t have to be separate. Direct instruction and problem-solving observe are essential components of math schooling. But like we mentioned initially, doing math includes feelings. Although we’ve heard so much concerning the irritating components of math, it can additionally evoke constructive feelings.

Nimah Gobir: Kids who’re absorbed in math problem-solving typically specific surprise and pleasure.

Kara Newhouse: Listening to younger individuals’s stories and honoring all of those feelings permits college students to be extra human in math class. And that doesn’t simply make them imagine of their math talents, it empowers them to study math and to do math.


Kara Newhouse: This episode wouldn’t have been doable with out Sarah Strong. To study extra about Dear Math letters, you can learn the guide she wrote together with her former scholar, Gigi Butterfield. The guide is named, Dear Math: ​​Why Kids Hate Math and What Teachers Can Do About It. 

Thanks additionally to Taylor Paris, Isabela Avila, Rachel Lambert and Amy Parks.

The MindShift workforce consists of Nimah Gobir, Ki Sung, Marlena Jackson-Retondo and me, Kara Newhouse.

Our editor is Chris Hambrick. Chris Hoff engineered this episode.

Additional help from Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña and Holly Kernan.

MindShift is supported partially by the generosity of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and members of KQED.

Nimah Gobir: If you like MindShift, and enjoyed this episode, please share it with a good friend. We actually admire it. You can additionally learn extra or subscribe to our e-newsletter at

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