Jethra Spector: Using Miles and Noah's Math Column in the Classroom

This is a picture of Jethra Spector at the elementary school where she used to teach. She is now in her 5th year of teaching GED math for Minneapolis Public Schools adult education and her 1st year of teaching developmental math at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Before that she was an elementary school teacher for 23 years.

I was delighted to get the following email from Jethra Spector to Noah Smith and me about our Quartz column “There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t,” which was later syndicated to the Atlantic as “The Myth of I’m Bad at Math.” She graciously gave me permission to share it with you. 

I want to thank you again for permission to share your article “The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’” with the students in my remedial math classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Classes started last week, and I assigned the article for homework on the first night of class. 

Here is a link to the student response sheet I made for my students to complete when they were done reading the article. And here is a link to the PowerPoint I made to facilitate a follow-up discussion the next time the class met. 

I thought you might be interested in what I learned from my students’ response sheets and class discussion.

  • Nearly every single one of my students has at some point said that he/she was bad at math, one as early as first grade when other kids laughed at her answers in class. The only students who didn’t say something like that were students who were worse at other subjects like reading, so that made them think math was their strong suit.
  • Almost none of my students had parents who drilled them on math. The few who did were all from other countries.
  • Every single student agreed most with an incremental orientation to intelligence. This was perfect for me because it set them up to realize that they could be successful in my class if they were willing to make the effort and work hard.
  • Most of my students identified with the statement, “I’m not a math person.” But one student wrote that the article changed his perception and he’s not going to say that about himself anymore because now he realizes that with hard work and determination he can master the material. Another student wrote that math is part of our lives, and knowing it could help improve our futures. Many students said that they like math when they get it but feel frustrated when they don’t get it. That just reinforced my belief that as their math teacher one of my goals must be to present the concepts in such as way that they get it. However, I now feel empowered to remind my students that not everyone will get it at the same time, and for some it will take more practice.
  • Everyone agreed that many things can be accomplished through personal perseverance and effort.
  • Only a few wrote about a famous person as a hero or role model (Oprah, Barack Obama, and Nelson Mandela). The rest wrote mostly about family members.
  • I enjoyed reading their responses regarding how much effort they are willing to make to ensure their success in my class. One student wrote 110%. Many wrote, “whatever it takes.” It was a great opportunity for me to remind them that they don’t have to do it alone; the school has many tutors available to help them succeed.
  • Other thoughts about the article included:
  • “It really puts motivation in students to say practice makes perfect. With effort and persistence you can get through anything.”
  • “I think that this was a great article…it has opened up my mind and helped me understand some things that I did not know about being good or bad at math.”
  • “I’m intrigued by the study habits and how many days they go to school in Japan. Even though it seems a lot, one can never have too much education and knowledge.”
  • “It is an eye-opening article. It made me change the way I think about math.”
  • “I knew it! I used to think I was unintelligent, but that was only because I never really tried. Deep down inside I knew I wasn’t putting forth any effort. When I did, I got great results back.”
  • “I learned that I’m not dumb at math. I just have to make the extra effort to succeed at it.”

When I asked my current students if I should have my classes in the future read this article, the overwhelming response was “yes!”

As I collected the student response sheets, some students asked what they should do with the article. I told them to give it to someone else they know who thinks they’re bad at math!

Update–A Note from Jethra: I saw the guest post up last night and already sent the link to a few people. My dad already wrote back and said it brought tears to his eyes. He’s got a PhD in math and taught math at UW-Milwaukee once upon a time.

I hope other people will feel free to use the student response sheet and powerpoint for discussion if they like. As for me, I couldn’t be happier with the results. It was a great learning experience for me because it helped me get to know my students better. It also established the common understanding that students may have to work hard in my class, but that they can and will be successful if they do. One student made a connection to the bible: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”

Best to you and Noah, Jethra