A Love for Math Reignited

By Michael Ramirez, Senior Coordinator of School Transformation, Elementary Math

When I began school as a kindergartener, I absolutely adored math. As a lower elementary school student, I remember relatives asking me what my favorite subject in school was, and I would enthusiastically answer, “I love math!” 

But as I continued my schooling, my love for math began to fade. Math came easy to me, and I often finished math assignments quickly and was frequently given extra worksheets to keep me busy. Completing worksheet after worksheet? Boring. I can recall a specific moment in fifth grade: I finished a worksheet of long division problems, and proudly took my work to my teacher. He quickly checked the answers and said, “Good. Now do another sheet.” Because I didn’t want extra work, I decided to slow down.

In middle school, my math experience became more negative. I distinctly remember one session when I was able to correctly solve an equation in a way that my teacher hadn’t modeled in class. After I shared with him how I solved the problem, the teacher forced me to begin solving the problems his way. He told me that I wouldn’t receive credit for the work if I continued to solve problems using my own strategy. This made me believe that math was rigid and inflexible, and ultimately solidified my belief that math was not for me.

Fast forward 10 years to when I became an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles. The approved math curriculum encouraged me to teach the same way that I had experienced math as a student. For my first decade of teaching historically underserved students in South Central Los Angeles, I taught like this. As the teacher, I was the holder of all knowledge. My students were supposed to learn math through my modeling of specific techniques, lecture, and a multitude of near-identical practice problems. Unknowingly, I employed what Martin Haberman calls a “pedagogy of poverty.” The focus on lecture and rote memorization sets students up to leave high school with outdated skills and shallow math knowledge. 

In my second decade of teaching, I attended professional development opportunities that challenged my beliefs on how math should be taught to students. I began focusing on developing students’ conceptual understanding rather than having them complete a litany of problems. I encouraged students to have more voice during my math instruction, and I welcomed flexibility in how they solved problems. All of this was contrary to what the standard math curricula prescribed, and I found myself using supplementary materials and strategies often. Seeing what my students could do with math when I wasn’t focused on lecture and memorization reignited my own love for math, this time as an instructor. I decided to pursue a job outside of the classroom: coordinating and coaching math instruction.

This past year, as a coordinator of math instruction, I led the implementation of the Illustrative Math Beta pilot at schools in South Central Los Angeles where historically underserved students make up 99% of the student populations. The IM curriculum is crafted in a way that differs greatly from my experience of math (and how I taught math for many years). Here are a few components of the IM curriculum that make it unique and innovative:

  • Math Instructional Routines are built into the curriculum, which allow students to develop conceptual understanding of mathematical concepts without needing to learn new routines daily. 
  • Math Language Routines and access for students with disabilities are built into each lesson to meet the needs of and encourage participation from all students in the math classroom, regardless of their language development or learning needs.
  • Student voice is elevated through opportunities for mathematical discourse that are built into every single lesson of the curriculum.
  • The problem-based structure within the IM curriculum leans on the brilliance that lives within students, allowing them to develop mathematical understanding as a result of the problem-solving experience rather than teacher demonstration of one way to think about or solve a problem.
  • The curriculum allows for flexibility in problem solving, highlighting that there are multiple solution pathways to math problems.
  • The curriculum asks students to engage deeply in a few problems, and to examine important mathematical ideas to develop understanding, rather than start the learning process with lots of practice.

I was recently in a fourth grade class that has been implementing the IM curriculum. I had a conversation with a Latinx student about how she felt about math. She told me she loves math class because she gets to share her thinking, and understand how her classmates think about math, too. She shared that she likes to draw models of how the math works and told me that she sometimes leads the conversation about math that her class is working on. She excitedly shared that math is her favorite subject in school. 

As I step into classes using the Illustrative Math curriculum where historically underserved students make up the vast majority of each class, I see students who have the opportunity to experience math in a way that is different from how I experienced math as a child. I see myself in these students. Instead of having their love for math squashed through the math curriculum, their love of math is deepened by the Illustrative Math curriculum, helping them experience joy in the beauty of mathematics.

Next Steps

How did you learn math as a student? What was positive about your experiences? What was negative?

Think about the conversation that blog author Michael Ramirez had with the fourth grade girl about math class. What would you want students you work with to say about their math class experiences?