On Balance: Parenting and Education

Approaching Math with an Open Heart with Meredith Lorber

October 02, 2020 Blue School / Meredith Lorber Season 2 Episode 2
On Balance: Parenting and Education
Approaching Math with an Open Heart with Meredith Lorber
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with Meredith Lorber, Blue School’s Director of Middle School Teaching and Learning. Meredith started as Blue School's Math Specialist and continues to work closely with teachers across grades. Meredith shares her experience developing the math program at Blue School, ideas for creating a positive math culture and mindset, and helpful tools for parents to approach this work with their children.

Visit Blue School's website to learn more about our education philosophy and how to apply. BlueSchool.org

DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance can be a challenge. And now, so many of us are finding that our work, home, school and parenting lives are more tangled than ever. We see you and we’re here to partner with you.


DAWN WILLIAMS: Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate. I am Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we will find our way. 


DAWN WILLIAMS: Today I am over the moon to be speaking with Meredith Lorber about math at Blue School. Meredith is Blue School’s Director of Middle School Teaching and Learning. Welcome to On Balance. 


DAWN WILLIAMS:  So Meredith, your current role is Director of Middle School Teaching and Learning, but you started as the Blue School math specialist. And you've worked closely with math teachers over these years, I know. And I think that the developing and thinking about the math program is still a big component of your job, right? 


MEREDITH LORBER:  Yeah, absolutely. 


DAWN:  Great. So today we're going to focus on that. I wonder if you could start by sharing your story of math. Was it always something you loved? 


MEREDITH:  Yeah, you know, it's funny. I think we all have — we all have our own math story. I always liked math. I liked school in general and I think I was lucky in that even though I went to pretty traditional schools, I was pretty good at math and I was able to be successful, and so it always felt good to me. I was not always the best or the fastest by any means, but I did always kind of have a positive relationship with it. I think you know, in 2005, I joined the New York City teaching fellows, and when you do that, you don't — at the time, I didn't, like, get to choose that I wanted to teach math, they just sort of placed you somewhere. And at that time, when I started teaching math, I was just kind of thrown into it, and I really through the process of teaching it became really passionate about it. So I wouldn't say that I was incredibly passionate about math until I had the opportunity to teach it. And you know, I'm really grateful that that choice kind of wasn't up to me because it might not have happened otherwise. And you know, through teaching, I really — what I had to do is I kind of retaught myself all the math that I had learned over the years. I knew formulas. I was able to sort of memorize facts.


But in order for me to really be a good teacher I had to make sense of the math, I had to find ways to introduce concepts to kids — that would really make sense to them, and as I did that, I was like, oh, math is visual, it's creative, it's all about problem solving and puzzles and figuring things out. And so that's really when I started to just like, love math and love doing math and love doing math with other people. 


DAWN:  It is so fascinating to hear you say that, because of course the whole time I've known you, I've known you as an impassioned math person. 


MEREDITH:  Yeah. 


DAWN:  Who is also, like, I think I've said this to you before, I feel like I've watched you shift the math culture at Blue School — that you came in to an organization that sort of framed math in one way or thought about math in one way and really like, brought the children and the parents and the teachers and the leadership along with you into your love of math. So it's — it's very interesting for me to hear you say that that wasn't always your thing. 


MEREDITH:  Yeah, and you know, I would add it's interesting because I think I also — like I can look back on my — sort of my education and my time growing up and doing math, and I had many — I have many positive memories, but I also have some of those sort of unfortunate negative experiences that I think a lot of us [LAUGH] that are adults right now had growing up going through school, you know? I remember the timed math tests and all of the anxiety that they produced. I remember — being in a high school math class where it was like you either just get it or you don't and if you don't get it then like maybe this isn't for you. Like I remember all of those feelings. And I feel really lucky somehow I persisted through them, and I kind of came to the other side. But yeah, it is — you know, I do, I just feel lucky that I kind of — I had a very traditional education in many ways, at least in terms of my math education. And I'm really happy that I discovered that that's not how it all has to be. 


DAWN:  So cool. So what does it mean to you to build a positive math culture? How did you go about building the culture at Blue School or how do you continue to go about building that culture? 


MEREDITH:  You know, [LAUGH] it's interesting. I think when I started, when I came to Blue School which — this is now my seventh year, I was coming out of the classroom, so all I ever knew was how to build a positive math culture within a classroom, not necessarily within a whole school. And so the way that I sort of developed a positive math culture within a classroom was through doing math with kids, and — and so my kind of my instinct when I started as the math specialist was well, if I want to connect with people about math, then actually we just have to do math together. And so that's what I did. I think that's primarily what I had the opportunity to do with teachers, with kids, and then I also had the opportunity to do that with parents, which was really exciting and new for me. And I think that played a big role in some of the development of that positive culture. 


DAWN:  Right. So can you share your thinking about what role parents play? I guess both in the culture and then in their student’s — in their child's learning? 


MEREDITH:  Yeah, I mean, I think a huge part — I think we all do, right, teachers do and parents do — we are all modeling for kids all the time. Everything we do is a model. And that's especially true for our relationship to math and we model for students and for our children, a relationship to math, and like what's possible and how to kind of approach it and how to be in a positive relationship with math. [LAUGHTER] 


And so I think — you know, I always say this to parents, I think it's often really helpful, my first kind of plea to parents when I'm talking to them and they're asking me this question, how do I support my kid, as I say, you know, please just — the step one is really avoid telling your kids that you're not a math person. 


DAWN:  Yeah. 


MEREDITH:  Or that you stopped understanding math when you were in sixth grade, right? Like those messages — it's really easy in our culture to say those things and it's really common and it's really accepted. But I think those messages give kids permission to kind of dismiss math from their lives in a way that we don't want, and in a way that we wouldn't send those same messages about art or reading or music. 


DAWN:  Right. 


MEREDITH:  And so you know, I think when we send those messages to kids, we kind of classify people as either math people or not math people. And that can be really harmful. So step one, as hard as it is, and I recognize that it's easier said than done, is to really try to avoid those messages. I think alternatively if parents demonstrate interest and curiosity in math, even if they don't know it or understand it all, just sort of demonstrating that positive mindset of being able to learn it, and wanting to learn it or wanting to know more about it, that rubs off on kids. So that's — I think that's the challenge of being a parent in general, right? Everything you do rubs off on your kids. [LAUGH] 


DAWN:  Right, and I guess — I feel like when I met you, I already had a child who had been doing math for a while and I had definitely already fallen into the pitfalls of saying things about my experience of math that were maybe not rubbing off on my child but definitely creating a context or creating — 


MEREDITH:  Right. 


DAWN:  Some possibility that math wasn't for them. 


MEREDITH:  Right. 


DAWN:  So I wonder [LAUGH] if you've already made that mistake as a parent [LAUGH] how do you recover, right? How do you rejoin your child in — I've actually seen you sort of take parents through this process time and time again at Blue School, so I'm wondering if you have tips and tricks for parents who might have already stumbled in that way? 


MEREDITH:  Yeah, I mean, first of all, it's like zero shame [LAUGH] if you’ve done that. Like, I just want to say that. 


DAWN:  Thanks for that. [LAUGH] 


MEREDITH:  I find — you know, as a relatively new parent, I like — I see how I sort of start to say or do those things about other aspects of my life, and it's really, really challenging. So there's no — there's no permanent harm that's been done if [LAUGH] if you — if you've said those things or expressed those things, because the truth is like, that's your honest experience. And I think what parents have is the power to then say you know, I have talked about myself [LAUGH] — 


DAWN:  Yeah. 


MEREDITH:  And my relationship to math in this way, and here's — and I'd love for it to not be like this, and so here's what I'm going to do to try to change that and change the way I feel about math. Just for us to demonstrate that it can be dynamic, right? That it's not fixed. It's really incredible. And then I think the next step is if you do feel that way about math, which you know, I would say a lot of us have had some difficult educational experiences in math that caused us to feel that way, think about ways that you might be able to kind of break free from that. You know, and I think with the work that I've been able to do with parents I think has been helpful in that, which is really just kind of starting from the basics of understanding — understanding math in a way that it was never taught before. And I think when parents have an opportunity — and not just parents, teachers, all adults, have an opportunity to relearn math — and take the time to relearn it in a way where they're actually making meaning of it and it's not just rote, I think adults really start to enjoy it. And I think as soon as you start to enjoy it then that's kind of all you need. 


DAWN:  Yeah, I — beginning enjoying math as an adult has been a profound experience for me. I remember a leadership team meeting that you came in and you did math with the leadership team. And I thought, oh, like, we're approaching it in this way, okay. So thanks, Meredith. [LAUGH] 


MEREDITH:  Yeah, I'm so glad that you had that experience and that stuck with you. 


DAWN:  Totally. 


MEREDITH:  That's awesome. 


DAWN:  So I'm wondering about the role that students play for each other around this culture of math and the learning of math. 


MEREDITH:  Well, I mean, learning is really social, right? So students I think play a big role in general in all their classes, and I think in math class in particular, the — you know, the culture of a math classroom is a really big deal, and I think that's a big job of teachers, is to help create a really positive culture within a classroom. And you know, students are the primary members of classrooms, so they do affect each other. I think really often — success in math is associated with pace, with being fast, with getting something quickly, and I think that having that association can have a negative impact on other students, but it can also have a negative impact on the student themselves. [LAUGH] 


So — and what I mean by that is you know, I might — you know, maybe I like really — I got multiplication really quickly, and I feel so proud of myself and that's awesome. But if I think the reason that I'm good at math is because I got it quickly, then when I get to division and I'm struggling with it, it's going to be really hard for me to maintain that positive relationship, right? And so I think students really affect each other in that way. I don't think it's the student's responsibility to sort of know that that's — that they have to be a certain way in math class. I think that that is the role of the teacher, is to help create those — that understanding that the way we talk about math with each other and the way we support each other in math, and the way we talk to ourselves about math and the way we support ourselves about math — can really have a big impact. Does that make sense? 


DAWN:  It totally makes sense. I — it's making me think — of walking into the middle school math classroom and seeing words on the wall that are about how you take care of yourself and how you take care of other people in the room while doing math. 


MEREDITH:  Yeah. 


DAWN:  And I know the — those kinds of messages — were never visible to me in my math class, nor even like in my mind as a possibility. I wonder if you can share some of those sort of — I don't know if you call them norms, or — 


MEREDITH:  Yeah, I often think of them as kind of habits. 


DAWN:  Habits, yeah. 


MEREDITH:  You know — well, I would say, so the first one, like the biggest one that I kind of care about the most is this idea of making mistakes in a math classroom. And I think that's something that teachers at Blue School talk to students a lot about and that's really important. And just this idea that, you know, when you actually make a mistake in math you're learning something and your brain is growing. Neurons are firing, right? 


So just understanding that making mistakes is a part of the process, and struggling with something is part of the learning process. And it's actually a really good thing. So I think that that's one really important aspect of a math classroom. I think — you know, math is really collaborative and I think being able to talk about what you're doing and share your strategies and also listen to others and understand what they're doing, deepens kids' understanding. And so we really want students to enter a math classroom and think about it — think of it as a place where you're having discussions, you're sharing your ideas and you're collaborating and you're learning from one another. So those are some of the big pieces to me — of what we want kids to — to think of a math classroom as being about, and — or think of the sort of important habits that we want them to bring to a math class. 


DAWN:  So I wonder if you could talk more about your or Blue School's vision or aspirations for — for primary school or middle school math. And then how you work with the team of math teachers — in approaching that vision? 


MEREDITH:  Sure. I think in terms of kind of our aspirations I think — I would — I think the word that often comes to mind is balance. We want kids to both always be developing the skills and have an opportunity to practice skills and get stronger at skills in math class, and then also have opportunities — for real inquiry based learning and inquiry based experiences. And so we want — I think in order for kids to be successful in both of those and to really enjoy math, they have to balance each other out.


And we want students in those inquiry based experiences to be able to really jump into problems on their own, and struggle with problems and think about things that are more open ended. I would say that the other thing that feels really important is — the idea that math is really visual. And that's a huge part of both the primary and the middle school program, right? Math is not all about algorithms. It's not all about formulas or memorizing facts. When we learn an algorithm, it's really important that students develop a deeper understanding of why that algorithm works. We will always eventually learn an algorithm, 'cause it's oftentimes the most efficient way to solve a problem — but leading up to that, we want students to have a visual representation of what they're doing and then be able to really deepen their understanding through that visual. 




MEREDITH:  What was your second question, sorry? 


DAWN:  I was just going to — no, no. How you work with the team of teachers?


MEREDITH:  Yeah. I mean, you know, teachers are all really different so I try just as I would as a classroom teacher, I would try to meet every kid where they are. I think the same thing is true for teachers, right? So whenever I'm working with teachers, it's important for me to understand both what their relationship with math is, how comfortable they are teaching it, where did they want to grow as a math teacher, and we go from there. And I think that's a big piece of my work with teachers. I also work with teachers just to think about the big curriculum questions. It's important for students that are going through a K to 8 experience have some coherence and have it be a really clear and thoughtful trajectory from kindergarten through eighth grade. So that's also a piece of my work with teachers. And then you know, I think some of my favorite work with teachers, luckily I still get to be in classrooms a lot. 


Is just — getting to do the math with the kids and get to talk to teachers about that and — you know, one of my favorite things to do is look at students' work and just try to make sense of and understand the different ways they're approaching a problem. And so I still love to get to do that. 


DAWN:  So the idea of looking at students' work is making me think about presentations of learning and presentations of learning are such a big part of our middle school. I wonder if you can share some of your thinking about presentations of learning and the purpose of presentations? 


MEREDITH:  Yeah. You know, it's for me, presentations of learning first of all is really a way for students to share their work with people outside of their classroom community, with parents, with other teachers, with other adult community members. Or with like other experts in the field, and it's not just something we do for math. We also do presentations of learning in our novels and nonfiction class and integrated studies. But for math in particular, it all started for me with something called a published problem, so within the math class, a big part of what students learn to do is actually publish a problem. And in some ways I kind of compare it to the idea of publishing a piece of writing in a novels class. And the idea is that students are taking a problem that they've really worked on, and it's usually a more open ended problem or kind of a meatier math problem, and they're both proving all of their thinking and then they're also having an opportunity to write about it. 


And I think it's really important for students in math classes to know that their work isn't just between them and their teacher, right? It's not just I'm doing this assignment, my teacher's going to look at it and then I'm going to get it back. There's an audience beyond their classroom that really is interested and cares about what they're learning and thinking, and then I think that process of kids having to communicate their thinking to other people and learn how to do that in a really clear way is just a huge part of the learning process. And I believe that oftentimes students leave middle school and some of the things that they are really taking away, some of the experiences that have stuck with them, are those opportunities for them to talk to people about their work, and to have to answer questions about it and defend it. I would add I think another important aspect of — of the published problem and the presentations of learning for math in particular, is this idea of proof. And so when I — I don't know about you but for most people I think we learn about proof in math class when you're in geometry class in like, tenth grade. And it's like this one year and it's pretty — for me it was pretty awful. [LAUGH] And I just remember like it was actually the first time that I was like oh, I really don't like this, because I just felt like I had to memorize things and it didn't really make a ton of sense to me. And as an adult and as a teacher, what I came to learn was that really, everything in math starting from like the earliest numeracy work that we do, there's proof involved in that. And a huge part of being a mathematician and a math student is really thinking about how do I take what I know and understand and prove it to someone else in a clear way. And so for me, I love published problems and I love presentations of learning because I think that they're starting to build that foundation of proof as a critical component of a kid's math experience. 


DAWN:  It's so interesting. Thank you. 


MEREDITH:  Yeah. 


DAWN: I'm wondering how you think about differentiation in middle school math classes, both in terms of scaffolding students and sort of supporting opportunities and extensions for students. 


MEREDITH:  Yeah. I mean, differentiation is a huge part of every classroom, and it's an important part of the work that we do at Blue School. Every class in every school I've ever worked in has a really wide range of learners and — and everyone is an individual and oftentimes what that means is that many kids need something a little bit different. And to me, differentiation is about getting each kid what they need, not to do the same thing, to all be able to do the same thing, but for everybody to be able to grow, right? So we might all be in different starting places, but the goal is that we're all growing. And so you know, I would say in math classes, it doesn't mean that kids are all doing different things by any means, but it does mean that every kid might be working on — there might be a foundational piece of the work that everybody — that's common among all the students, but kids are getting something different based on what they really need. So some students might be — might have an assignment that's a little bit more scaffolded, or be getting the instruction in a slightly different way, either in a small group or one-on-one.


And then other students might be looking for problems to really push their thinking and challenge them. And it's one — you know, differentiation is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. It's a lot of work. It requires really knowing all of your students and knowing what they understand. And being able throughout a single lesson and also throughout an entire year to be constantly checking for their understanding and getting to know what they need in order to keep growing. Does that make sense? 


DAWN:  Totally, thank you. And I guess before we leave, I'm wondering if there are any favorite tools or resources or books that you could recommend to parents who want to be thinking more about math along with their children? 


MEREDITH:  Absolutely. You know, I think the — my number one — resource that I like to point both teachers and parents and kids to is an educator named Jo Boaler and she works out of Stanford. She has a website called Youcubed.org. And it — she has classes, she has classes for parents, she has classes for teachers, classes for kids that are really thoughtful, and a lot of cool math activities as well. And she's written a lot about how to build positive math culture and math mindset. And that's — I always think she's a great place to start. Let's see. I'm thinking about this idea of proof and I think if there are parents that are interested or other people that are interested in kind of understanding a little bit more about what I mean and what I'm talking about, I would say a lot of my understanding and thinking about that came from reading A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart. It's a pretty quick and easy read, but if you want to think about math as proof — it's a really beautiful book. 


I think for younger kids, there's something called Bedtime Math, there's both books and then there's also an online component, and Bedtime Math is cool because it's this idea that, you know, we read stories to our kids at night before bed, and it's just this routine and Bedtime Math is a cool tool for finding ways to build routines around math into your everyday experiences with your kids. 


DAWN:  So cool. 


MEREDITH:  Yeah, it's really wonderful. And then just in general, I mean, I think when we play puzzles with our kids, when we play games, we're doing math. And so I think it's great to name that for our kids. And for them to know that these fun things that we're doing together are ways that they're developing their math skills and their math minds, in a way. You know, I always loved playing like Clue and — Battleship and like anything that's really related to problem solving is also — I would say is also related to math. 


DAWN:  So great. 


MEREDITH:  Yeah. 


DAWN:  Finally for Blue School parents who might be listening, is there an intention to — continue math round tables this year? 


MEREDITH:  Absolutely. I don't have any dates set yet. We've — I've got to figure out what they look like over Zoom. [LAUGH] But yeah, absolutely. And I would say if parents have — you know, I always want my parent math roundtables to feel really relevant to families and what they're experiencing with their kids, so if there are certain topics that parents are like oh, I really wish I better understood how my kid was learning division or fractions, you know, I would say email me, because I'm always interested in knowing what parents want to learn more about. And then I can think about how to design workshops around those topics. 


DAWN:  Thank you so much, Meredith. This has been a true joy. 


MEREDITH:  Yeah. Oh, thanks. You know, when I came — became a math teacher I never thought I'd do a podcast, so. [LAUGHTER] I appreciate all of your thought and your questions, and your interest in math. 


DAWN:  Thanks, Meredith. 


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