I make space for students to develop their own identity as mathematicians through problem and project-based learning, because everyone can be a "math person" - some just haven't found it yet!

There is a shirt I've seen online that says, "How to be a math person: Step 1: Be a person." That's it! This slogan sums up my desire for my students and the overarching philosophy of my classroom. Everyone can "be" a math person - some just haven't found their way yet!

I came to this philosophy almost because I had no other choice. I was traditionally decent at math; I did the college preparatory track through calculus in high school, but I never particularly loved it, or felt talented at it. I did what I had to do to get the grade and maintain my GPA. After taking a circuitous route to the math classroom via a degree in social studies education, I was not able to connect and identify with math the "traditional" way - I had to find real-world connections so I could make sense of the concepts before teaching it to my students! As soon as I found myself deeply invested in the history of mathematics and authentic problems I could give my students to solve, I realized that could be good for all students. The ones who were already confident could apply their talents as far as they liked, and students who didn't like math but did like _______ could try on their new math identity as a _______ who does math!

Making space for inclusion of different levels of math skill and math identities is what makes me an outstanding teacher - at any time during the year, kids can take whatever interest they have and use that to become a math person, too, I accomplish this through access to rigorous instruction, goal setting, math discussions, and opportunities for creativity and choice with problem and project-based learning. There is a collection of posters hanging from the rafters in my classroom that I use to facilitate seven “math class norms” that are vital for math identity-building. These norms come from the book Mathematical Mindsets, by Jo Boaler of Stanford University, and they give names to all the ways of thinking that I had to navigate through myself as I found myself as a mathematician in the classroom.
  1. Everyone can learn math to the highest levels
  2. Questions are really important
  3. Mistakes are valuable
  4. Math is about creativity and making sense
  5. Math class is about learning, not performing
  6. Value depth over speed
  7. Math is about connections and communication
The deepest rewards I have found in teaching have been when students have taken the ideas in these norming statements and made them their own, becoming confident and creative problem solvers and “math people”. I think most often of the young woman who underachieved in my class one spring but signed up for summer school after I begged her to give herself a chance to prove she could do better. She walked out at the end of that summer session with a large stack of papers that held her work, and an even larger smile on her face. She knew then what I had already believed in her - that she could learn math to the highest levels. I think of the students who enter my classroom as proficient, yet still not confident in their skills that leave in May as mathematicians because they realized they could do more than just follow an algorithm because I gave them the chance to apply creativity to problem-solving and communication. I think of the kids I’ve met in August that aren’t yet proficient, are risk-averse, and/or know that math “isn’t their thing,” who have accepted my invitation to make mistakes in the name of their learning and grow both in knowledge and confidence. As I, the teacher, accept them as “mathematicians,” their peers’ perceptions of them change, and eventually they change their self-perceptions. They put on a math identity.