Boring. Stressful. Humiliating.
For many students, those are the feelings most commonly associated with math class.
Tracy Zager (MIT ‘02) grew up loving to solve puzzles and riddles, but by high school a series of bad experiences put her on the brink of giving up math altogether. One of Zager’s family friends made her promise to give it another try in college, however, and her experience in an experimental, project-based calculus class changed her perspective forever.
“I very much relate to why so many teachers dislike teaching math,” Zager said. “Many had their own experiences with not understanding math, getting things wrong, and even getting mocked by teachers when they made a mistake.”
Today, Zager is on a mission to help educators make math class more like actual mathematics—a discipline she says is inherently playful, creative and captivating—with her new book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had.”
Zager said the book has roots in a math methods course at the University of Washington College of Education taught by Elham Kazemi, Geda and Phil Condit Professor in Math and Science Education.
“Elham taught me that kids have mathematical ideas that are beautiful and interesting and we need to be better at listening to them,” Zager said.
Zager hopes to break the cycle of generally poor math instruction in the nation’s schools that leaves many teachers feeling intimidated about their own ability to teach math well.
Zager, who taught fourth grade on Bainbridge Island for several years and began working with pre-service teachers and their mentors after moving to New England, spent five years doing field research for her book. During that time, she visited the classrooms of more than a dozen teachers for extended periods to observe how students talked to one another and to their teachers about math and learn how effective math teachers made decisions about engaging their students in different activities.
“I wasn’t looking for high standardized test scores or cute activities,” Zager said. “The book became about the common ground shared by these teachers who are getting their students truly engaged in doing mathematics. It can’t be about a cult of personality, it’s not just really dynamic teachers who can be successful in teaching math well. There are patterns that all teachers can follow to make teaching and learning math something that’s joyful.”
Zager’s book includes real-life vignettes from educators who teach in a diverse range of school environments, and its companion website provides additional free resources including videos, articles, blog posts and more. On her professional blog, Zager also offers a variety of resources for teachers and forums where educators can connect with other readers, ask questions and discuss the book.
“My hope is we make math class more like math as a discipline,” Zager said. “Math is full of stories and passion and creativity, and that’s what our students should feel when they do math.”
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications