What If I Taught Girls the ONLY Math Class They Ever Took?

by Anne Szymendera, STEM teacher

“Imagine your students were only required to take one math class in their career. How would you teach them? What would you teach them?” These questions prompted a weekend of inspired learning from math teachers across the country. When I attend the Teaching Contemporary Mathematics conference hosted by North Carolina’s School of Science and Mathematics last month, I was eager to learn ways in which I could answer these questions in regards to my own students. This two-day conference invites presenting teachers from around the country to share their ideas on how to incorporate technology, find realistic applications, and increase student involvement in their classes.

As a second-year teacher, much of my time preparing for classes feels like doing what I can day-to-day, and just continuing to keep learning and doing better with each lesson. I work hard to create interesting and exciting lessons, and I pride myself in trying to thoughtfully execute each day. Inevitably, though, the day-to-day can get exhausting, and it becomes about keeping my head above water, and doing what I can until I have time to plan something better. Then, suddenly, I find myself falling into a pattern – a pattern in which I have to ask myself, “Am I really doing everything I can to make these girls’ learning worthwhile?”

The conference introduced me to ways in which I can create both small goals each day in my classroom to help avoid this pattern. I learned ways to think about how I can make students’ time in my classroom time well-spent by improving how my students learn, not just teaching them material, and growing in what they learn. I ask myself: If mine was the only math class these girls were required to take, would they want to come back for more?

The two days of the conference were spent attending hour-long sessions, on topics that piqued our interest. One that I found really inspiring was a session on GeoGebra, an online mathematics program used to create interactive lessons; I immediately saw ways in which I could incorporate even just five minutes of this online math program to deepen levels of understanding and learning with my students. Even better, the session’s presenter answered the question: How can we make students leaders of their own learning? He noted that even weaker students flourish from discovery-based learning, and providing opportunities for students to guide their own encounters with new concepts is monumental in their long-term understanding. This may not be a novel approach, and it is one I have used before, but it’s an important one that can get lost in the day-to-day of teaching.

Other sessions I attended addressed a variety of stimulating topics. One highlighted specific math problems that can be carried through, and repeated in, different math classes throughout high school in order to inspire connected learning; another looked at problem-based learning as a basis for classroom teaching. Yet another focused on how to incorporate computer programming in any of your classes, not just computer science.

I was inspired anew as a learner, as well as a teacher. I was filled with ideas and the desire to bring new ideas to my classroom each day. After these two days, I realized that it is not about overwhelming myself by trying to create an epic classroom using every new thing I learn. It’s about reminding myself why I am planning each night. It’s about remembering who I am teaching. It’s about making small, thoughtful changes that leave big impacts on my students’ learning. It’s about never being intimidated to try something new and possibly daunting, if it means your students might really flourish.

I want to be the teacher I set out to be each day — one who inspires personal growth and an interest in learning within a mathematical framework. I was reminded after the Teaching Contemporary Mathematics conference of my purpose in being in the classroom each day, and I continue to reflect on, and work towards answering this question: Would my students be lucky to take my class as their only required math class?

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