How Teachers Want To Change The Way Kids Learn Math

by Katie Cloyd
Scary Mommy and SDI Productions/Getty

When I was a kid, math was my least favorite subject. I loved words, stories and pictures. English, art, spelling, and history motivated me to learn and made me feel creative. Even science excited me sometimes.

But math? Never math. It always felt like an overwhelming chore. Memorizing by rote. Speed drills. The idea that there was only one answer and one way to get there. It all felt impossible to me. My brain just didn’t work that way.

I managed to squeak out grades that satisfied my parents and teachers. But I never felt like I was really learning. I was very sure that when I grew up, I would choose a career that didn’t involve any math AT ALL.

This started to change for me in high school. My tiny private school hired a young math teacher, fresh out of college, brilliant at mathematics, but also near enough to our age to be relatable and relevant. He could bond with the guys about baseball and throw out snippets of his fiancee’s ideas for their upcoming wedding to keep the girls engaged. He was a tall, funny, cool Canadian bass player in his early twenties. When he taught, we wanted to listen. It was the first time any teacher presented math while looking at us instead of writing endless equations on the board.

That was over twenty years ago. The things he taught me in high school stuck with me well enough that I can still remember some of it to this day. I never turned into a math whiz, but I respect how math factors into things I love, like art and music. Math came alive for me under Joel Bezaire’s guidance, and that was a gift I didn’t know I needed.

When I came across this article about humanizing math, I instantly thought of Mr. Bezaire and the way he did just that for me in high school.

More and more educators are committing to making math class an experience that embraces a student’s humanity instead of reducing them to human calculators.

Sam Shah, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn, New York, and Hema Khodai, an instructional resource teacher in Mississauga, Ontario, organized the Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics to further this idea. They spent the month of August creating an online experience designed for swapping philosophies with math educators. They brainstormed ways to make math less of a chore and more of a human experience.

Teachers came together to discuss concepts like reducing the emphasis on speed and accuracy, and giving students room to make mistakes. They acknowledged that, like writing or art, math can require a “rough draft” — a place to make mistakes on the way to the right answer.

They also acknowledged things like race and culture, making sure educators take into account how kids are likely to use math in their actual lives based on their lived experiences.

One graduate student came to the States as a refugee. She shared how her father’s death when she was 12-years-old thrust her into a mathematical role in her home. She had to learn to help balance the family’s budget. School math wasn’t really preparing her for that. A more human approach could have given her room to discuss this with her teachers. Maybe they could have figured out how to make math relevant and useful for her family.

I was really interested to know how my incredible former teacher would feel about the idea. I tracked him down and reached out to him. He agreed to talk to Scary Mommy about how he uses humanity to make math more engaging. Joel Bezaire has been teaching for twenty-one years now. He’s not an early-twenties recent college grad anymore, but he still uses a personal approach to keep his students engaged.

“I endeavor to give my students space to discover mathematics for themselves before I tell it to them,” Bezaire shares with Scary Mommy. “I want them to see that (regardless of their genealogy) they come from a lineage of mathematicians and thinkers. Every culture came up with their own interesting ways to think about counting, numeracy and math concepts.”

So…how does he do that?

“I want my students to engage math at their own interest level. Are you an artist? Let’s look at how math intersects the arts. Athlete? Let’s look at sports stats and analytics,” he says. “If you have a mind for social justice, I want to give you a chance to see how mathematics can be used to make the world a more equitable place.”

What about younger students? What can we do to make math more accessible for younger kids? They might not have a great idea of what their own personal interests are just yet.

I asked a third-grade teacher to explain how she makes math engaging in the early grades. She emphasized that math doesn’t have to be a boring, repetitive chore. If we start explaining how math relates to real life in elementary school, kids can learn how to be excited by it.

“Today’s math teachers teach for conceptual understanding,” she explains. “Parents often do not understand the way their child is learning because they only know the older, procedural way to add, subtract, multiply, or divide. The math educators I know are very connected to the importance of knowing their students and making real world connections to math.”

To keep it fun, she sets up themed days. She’s turned her classroom into an operating room, complete with gloves, masks and surgical gowns. She has set up a black light mathematics glow party. Once she even created a football-themed tailgate! She makes her classroom a place where kids look forward to learning.

Thanks to teachers like Sam Shah, Hema Khodai and other dedicated educators, this generation of students could very well grow up to understand math in a way that many of us simply missed when we were learning mathematics in the eighties and nineties.

Great teachers who care about their students are world-changers. Humanizing the math learning landscape not only increases mathematics literacy, but could also decrease the anxiety and stress associated with the outdated methods math learning.

It’s such important work.