It’s time to mathematize our schools

As a math curriculum specialist working with teachers and school leaders, I find that principals are sometimes a bit apprehensive when it comes to math. Feeling hesitant in a subject that you are not comfortable with is natural. It is what we do with that uneasiness that makes all the difference.

School leaders like you have an important role to play in building a school-wide positive math culture, regardless of your own background in math. Research shows that the way adults talk about math powerfully shapes students’ math mindsets. If a principal or English teacher says, “Oh, I’m just not a math person,” that signals to a student that there is such a thing as a “math person” – and that it might not be them, either. 

Through your instructional coaching moves, the tone you set in PD and the choices you make about everything from school events to bulletin boards, you can develop a school culture that sends the message that all students can achieve high levels of math. 

Part of this work involves cultivating opportunities for your non-math teaching staff to lower their own math anxieties and take ownership of students’ math mindsets. Just as many schools intentionally cultivate “reading cultures,” in which everyone identifies as a “reader,” you can collaborate with your math team to cultivate a school-wide “math culture” – ultimately driving more equitable outcomes. 

6 fun ways you can develop a math culture among your staff and students:

1. Invite students and teachers to identify their “personal points of math power.” (Beth McCord Kobett)

Success in math takes much more than adding fractions or using equations. It’s about being a person who loves to take on a challenge, being a pattern seeker, being diligent and detailed and being a collaborator who loves to bounce ideas around and celebrate the successes of others. The teachers I work with call qualities like this our “personal points of math power.”

When presented with a list like this, students can’t help but recognize themselves as people with personal points of math power – and the same goes for leaders and teachers. When I hear a student approaching a challenging problem say something like, “Miss Margie, this is going to be a good one for me because I’m a pattern seeker,” I can see they are starting to own their math power.

Consider making space in your staff meetings to highlight a list of personal points of math power or invite your math team to lead the staff in generating a list. This can be the first move toward a school culture in which all adults see themselves as powerful in math – and all students can, too.

2. Give teachers a chance to experience what doing math is meant to feel like.

To truly learn math, we all have to be ready to muck around a bit in the unknown! Math is meant to be a little bumpy. We start, we stop and we try another way. We need to let kids and teachers in on this. When working with students in math, we spend a lot of time discussing the importance of being courageous enough to share our beginning thoughts because sometimes those beginning thoughts help move others forward. Having these same conversations with teachers can help build a risk-taking culture and deepen trust that supports other initiatives as well. 

I always begin PD with an engaging math activity like, “Which one doesn’t belong?” or “What do you notice? What does it make you wonder?” or “Convince us that…” These kinds of experiences give everyone a voice when it comes to math. When educators see that they have something to offer, it lowers anxiety, and people are more willing to share their emerging, beginning and developing thoughts. Giving everyone an opportunity to contribute and feel like they are moving the learning forward is powerful. We can intentionally plan for that to happen in PDs and then from that, in our classrooms.

3. Show your staff how “math-talk moves” belong in every subject area.

In PD, we discuss “math-talk moves” that are valuable in every content area, such as repeating, re-voicing, wait time and turn and talk. These types of pedagogical best practices have special value in math, and when that is made explicit for your whole staff, they can see how reinforcing these strategies across content areas can strengthen students’ math identities. For example, I’ve seen ELA teachers hang “math-talk moves” posters in their classrooms and use that same language in their discussions. The idea is to use common language throughout the school and give students practice using the skills they will need to become critical thinkers. 

4. Hold a school-wide Math-a-thon.

Every year in Pennsylvania, we have time between the reading segment of our standardized testing and the math segment. We use this time to celebrate math. A very brilliant mathematician and leader, Dr. Steve Ryan, came up with the idea of celebrating math with a Math-a-thon for these days. The Math-a-thon expands through art class, music class, gym class and every other subject. In art, students do some M.C. Escher transformations. In gym class, they made a giant, life-size coordinate plane, and they themselves were the points on the plane. In music class, they discussed the way math is always present in music. It was a really fun way to open up new access points for students while also building community around math for both students and educators.

5. Give math a strong presence in your school. 

There are many ways to bring math to the forefront to be celebrated. We can offer weekly school-wide math challenges. We can post engaging math routines on bulletin boards for classrooms to visit and ponder. Recently, I’ve been playing around with puzzles more. I offer monthly math puzzles for everyone. It is amazing what happens when a student begins to approach math like a puzzle. The challenge feels good. In fact, teachers of other subject areas have started asking me to send them the puzzles, too, because the kids are coming in so excited about them. It’s all about making math come alive and feel like part of the fabric of your school community.

6. Hold a math-focused family night.

Teachers and principals aren’t the only adults whose attitudes about math impact students’ math mindsets: Their families play a powerful role, too. Many of our students’ family members have experienced math anxiety themselves, and working with them to lower that anxiety can go a long way toward empowering students. Consider inviting families in for conversations about math – everyday math and academic math – and including them in the moves you make to mathematize your school.

At family nights, I’ve found it especially powerful to point out to students’ caretakers that they really do know so much math, and they use it every day. We talk about their daily lives and where math comes up, from their professional lives to the ways they use fractions in the kitchen. At a recent family night, we were all laughing about the many times during baking when you can only find one measuring cup – say the ¼ cup – and you need to use it to measure a cup and a half of flour. It’s encouraging for caregivers to realize how very good they are at mathematics and how it plays a role in their family lives.

Math isn’t just something that happens in the classroom – it’s something we carry into our lives every day. Let’s do the same at school.

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