As a person, I feel immense joy and fulfillment in learning a new concept, creating a new project or mastering some skill I felt I could never do independently. I believe this feeling is universal amongst people and is what inspires me to teach, tutor, and help students to learn. If I achieve nothing else as a teacher, I want to guide students in becoming self-motivated, independent learners: leading them to water, so to speak, but letting them drink themselves.
The days when students tell me “my brains hurt from all that thinking” is the space where the magic happens. I understand the joy and significance of this mental stretching. I try to make math meaningful by demonstrating that it is not merely a “topic” in life, but something that courses through everything, even if we cannot always see it. As a teacher, I have done this by taking field trips and examining math in nature, by creating songs and dances that reflect and explain mathematical principles, and by inspiring adventures both in the class and outside of it. I attempt to make these same connections through a dynamic tutoring sessions, not one just filled with extra worksheets and problems sets. I believe these are just some of the crucial ways in which teachers can encourage and support students to make sense of mathematical ideas for themselves. Mathematical ideas really come alive for students when they incorporate them into their own understanding of the world. For students to really understand a topic, it has to be relevant to them. If we can support our students by helping them to see the many ways math impacts their lives I believe they will not only come to see value in learning math, but to see the concepts through their own eyes.
I have yet to find a subject in which I couldn’t explain valuable math explanations around, from the Alice in Wonderland stories to the Angkor Wat Temples. Sadly, math education programs do not always engage math in the world. Thus, we miss the chance to illuminate the beauty and relevancy of the subject. My approach to mathematics education is guided by the philosophy that math is best learned as a contact sport. You can only really learn it by getting onto the field and playing, so to speak. There is considerable value in homework, exams, and more traditional assessment techniques, but I feel that experience driven learning and authentic assessment stimulate deeper learning. As a tutor I try to implement authentic assessment through a variety of learning activities meant to help students get onto the playing field. Activities I have used range from developing a cell-phone use plan in algebra classes, to using baseball statistics to explore more advanced statistical techniques, and to exploring and implementing logic and beginning proof in high-school geometry through the stories of Lewis Carroll and Arthur Conan Doyle. From the street corner, into the art museum, and up in the mountains, math is everywhere. Math has a tremendous range of applications in countless subjects. I believe that by teaching and assessing through authentic experience, and utilizing the universal connections of math, students can become better at both seeing and working with math throughout their lives.
I have also been fortunate enough to teach math to students with language-based learning disabilities and many of these students also struggled with math as part of their learning disability. I discovered two critical things that continue to inform how I work with students who lack mathematical confidence. Firstly, offering to work with them outside of class hours is critical. I know students have problems, concerns, and fears that extend beyond the classroom as they construct their own understanding of the world and their place in it. I work tirelessly to support them in their emotional growth, providing as much nurturing and moral support as I can. Students who lack confidence do not always participate actively in class. They are afraid to be called on and often end up taking a passive approach to math class, ending up at a further disadvantage. After developing connections with students on a baseball field, or tossing a Frisbee, I have found students have become more willing to put in the effort to improve on their math-phobia. By working one on one and in small groups I have found that students lack in confidence stop negatively comparing themselves so much to their peers and start to succeed where they had been failing.
My core practices as an educator stem from my own perspective on the world. I am deeply interested in art, music, history and literature asides from extensive education in the sciences and math. I focus on what these ideas share, not what separates them. For example I once had a student who was struggling with finding the nth terms of different types of sequences. The student happens to be a wonderful drummer and so I suggested he think about sequences like he thinks about drum patterns. Almost immediately the concept started to click on for him! This simple connection between taking his existing musical knowledge and thinking and then re-applying it to how he studies math helped him turn a difficult concept into one he readily mastered. I believe in emphasizing inter-disciplinary work as a means for enriching education and finding meaningful ways of motivating our children, like my drummer student.
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