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Talking About Math in a Beautiful Location


Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Claire Gates poses with 4 other teachers from the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands
Claire poses with four teachers from the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands

When I started at Education Northwest, I never imagined I would be making trips to Pacific islands to lead math workshops. I made my third trip this past July to the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) along with my colleague, Malkeet Singh, to do a series of four-day workshops. In our first two trips to CNMI, we worked mainly with middle and high school teachers, but this time, the teachers in my workshops were from K–5 classrooms. I admire and respect them so much since they usually are responsible for teaching all subjects. I have also found that K–5 teachers are very anxious to learn more content and pedagogy for mathematics. And besides, they are just fun!

The first leg of our journey was a 10-hour direct flight from Portland to Narita, Japan. I had the luxury of having an empty seat beside me. This gave me room to spread out and spend almost the entire time refining my agenda for the upcoming workshops. I think it is imperative that a workshop be balanced between providing content and engaging participants in the act of “doing” mathematics. I love having an empty seat beside me, but sometimes having a seatmate leads to nice conversations—particularly about why people either love or hate math!

I had just such an opportunity for conversation while at dinner in the hotel when I shared a table with another lone woman traveler. She told me about her seventh-grade daughter’s struggles with understanding the notion of a function. Functions are special kinds of relationships in math. They can be helpful in making predictions. For instance, if a tree grows an average of 20 inches a year, you can predict the height after x years if you know the present height. Very handy thing, this function. The woman’s family is from the U.S. but lives in Korea and her children attend a Korean school. This reminded me that students studying mathematics the world over are all grappling with the same big ideas, conceptual understandings, and applications! It made me think: Should the Common Core State Standards be called the Common Core World Standards? Aren’t these the big ideas that are expected from students in all high-performing countries?

Another conversation I had was with a young man in our hotel who helped me haul the boxes of materials to my room. I asked, did he like math in school? He said he wasn’t very good at math and didn’t really like it until he had a teacher in high school who used physics applications to help students understand math. This young man went on to get a degree in mathematics. Eureka! That just fit with one of the goals of our workshops: understanding that learning mathematics should be a “sense-making” activity. If students can’t make sense of what they are learning, it usually results in the learning being very fragile.

The two weeks in this beautiful place went by rapidly as the teachers themselves engaged in sense-making activities, looked at samples of student work, read publications on learning progressions, and viewed videos of classrooms. It was a great experience for me, and all of the participants said the same. They are such enthusiastic and generous teachers and principals, always keeping the best interests of their students in mind. I wish I could be there when they welcome their students this fall and put the ideas we discussed into practice. We plan to stay connected and create a community of learners, even from this distance, that will support these teachers in their renewed efforts to engage their students in meaningful mathematics.

What is your story? Why do you love math or dislike math? Was it a special teacher, class, or activity that turned you on to the subject? Your experiences can help shape how I think about how we teach teachers, as well as students.

You can view a photo gallery of images from Claire’s journey on our Facebook page.