I spent my entire middle and high school career declaring, “I am not a math person.” I put in minimal effort and, in turn, received minimal reward. I opted out of taking math my senior year of high school and panicked when I was required to take statistics in grad school. And, as if to complete my arc of disdain for math, I became an English teacher.
Anecdotal evidence from other adults suggests my binary thinking about being a skilled math student (either you are or you aren’t) isn’t unique. Perhaps born of the similarly binary thinking around math (your answer is either right or it’s wrong), many adults’ math education didn’t do much to encourage a growth mindset in those who were not as intuitively adept as others.
Fortunately for our students, math pedagogy has come a long way in the last few decades, and at Ellis, it’s a particular area of strength. Every few years, each department conducts a curricular review to ensure that all of our classes are aligning with discipline-specific best practices and that we’re providing a consistent arc of instruction for all of our students, and our math department is currently in the midst of launching this process.
When I asked Math Department Chair Cara LaRoche to share what strengths she wants to capitalize on when her department reflects on their work, she highlighted the process-oriented approach to our math instruction, as well as the depth and breadth of knowledge of our faculty. All of our teachers emphasize the why over the what. Students are asked to explain their process when solving equations and to ask and answer one another’s questions when working through new material. At Ellis, it isn’t just about landing on the “right answer,” but rather being able to explain the thinking behind your approach so that you can apply the same logic in similar situations later or pinpoint where you went awry so that you can better understand why a certain step didn’t ultimately work out. Asking students to practice metacognition, or reflecting on their thinking, is one of the best ways to help them develop as independent learners and analytical thinkers.
One of the other strengths of our program is that all of our Middle School math teachers have also taught (or continue to do so) in the Upper School. By having a foot in both schools, teachers have a clear understanding of what base knowledge Middle School students will need to be successful in Upper School, as well as what skills and concepts they are able to build upon with their older students. Being privy to the entire scope of the Ellis math experience supports the intentionality of our curriculum, as well as the deep connections our teachers form with their students over the years.
Those relationships are, by far, the greatest strength of our faculty. The other day, I joined Ms. Tomashewski’s seventh grade math class for a Just Dance brain break, during which we moved jubilantly to music with a heart-thumping bass and a catchy hook. As we all laughed and cheered each other on, with Ms. T. putting us all to shame with her dance moves, I couldn’t help but wonder how my math education might have been different if I had teachers like those at Ellis who make learning fun, who know their students so well, and who truly believe that we are all “math people.”