#MyBeautyMySay

#mybeautymysay I have so much love for Dove's latest #MyBeautyMySay campaign that I wanted to share a story of my own. So here goes.

They said it was strange that a pretty girl like me wanted to be a math teacher.

I said, this ain't 1942. I'm confused. I was confused. I still am confused.

I was finishing my teaching degree, excited about the possibility of changing the world. I don't mean that in a dramatic way, I mean it literally. I was going to step inside classrooms and empower teenagers to do anything - to actually understand that they could do ANYTHING they wanted. And I was going to do that through math. If there was one thing I knew, it was that feeling stupid was one of the worst feelings in the world. And feeling as though I was inherently stupid (as many girls are made to feel, especially when it comes to M-A-T-H) made me feel powerless, lost, hopeless. That's why it was so important for me to become a teacher. I mean, there were tons of reasons, but the main one was that: to give teenagers a voice and to help them power the engine behind that voice. Through knowledge. Through understanding and finally believing that we - they - have the potential to do absolutely anything. Even math.

So there I was, heading into my first day of practice teaching, pumped and ready to change lives. I walked right into the math department and giddily announced to the first person I saw that I was a student teacher. And that's when it happened. This grouchy old math teacher - the kind they use in movies when they want to portray a stereotype of "THE grouchy old math teacher" - looked me up and down and asked: "what's a pretty girl like you doing becoming a math teacher?"

I laughed at first. But then I realized that he was serious. Like actually SERIOUS. I smiled politely and asked him just as seriously, if it was 1942. He didn't laugh. He didn't get it.

It didn't matter. That day I walked into the classroom and made it mine. Years later I still stay in touch with the students I had that very first teaching assignment, and I know that they built their engines, found their voices. Years later, people STILL give me strange looks and tell me that I don't 'look like a math teacher.' Try being in a rock band and teaching math in the same body - people don't get it and I don't get what they don't get! I'm glad that grouchy old math teacher gave me the extra fuel, the extra motivation, to make a real, tangible change. A change that will one day mean that no girl grows up thinking she's too pretty to be a math teacher, and that no boy grows up thinking that gender has anything to do with whether or not you can crunch numbers LIKE A BOSS.

I may not look like the math teachers you've seen in movies or IRL, but I look like me. I am a math teacher. This ain't 1942.

#MyBeautyMySay

 

Because The National Post Didn't Want To Print This

image16-2.jpg

Every once in awhile you read an article in another publication that makes you scream "THIS! THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE UNIVERSE!" Well, that happened to me last week. So, like any normal human being, I wrote a scathing Op Ed piece for The National Post. And of course they didn't publish it. Lucky you, I'm going to share it with you anyways. Enjoy! In response to this gem of an article from The National Post, which essentially promotes the idea that some of us should simply 'give up on math' at the age of eight: Embrace your ineptitude when giving up is the right thing to do

“Embrace your ineptitude when giving up is the right thing to do.” First of all, wow, what a statement to make to your educated readers, many (if not most) who have no doubt worked hard to get where they are today – an aptitude level that enables them to read and (gasp!) understand the verbose and multi-syllabic lexicon of this very publication. What would have happened to this group of people is they had decided in say, Grade 2, that they simply didn’t and never would have the capacity to read so perhaps they should instead focus their efforts on ‘what they’re good at’? Numeracy and the presently increasing lack thereof among the younger generation is a growing concern, and as someone who failed math before realizing that her perceived ineptitude was simply something imposed upon her, I take issue with the notion that mathematical and direction-following ability is something that large portions of our population (marginalized groups and women, no less) are inherently bad at.

When I was in high school, I failed math. Twice. Of course, that made sense. I wasn’t good at math, I was good at art and English, usually it’s one or the other isn’t it? Can people really be good at multiple things? Shocker. My parents weren’t having it (which I am grateful for to this day, thanks mom and dad), and enrolled me in a smaller school where teachers didn’t indulge in the idea of ‘math people’ and ‘non math people’. Within a week I was enjoying the wonders of the forbidden fruits that mathematical knowledge held under the guidance of a teacher who believed in me right from the moment I walked into her classroom. I ended the year with a 99% in Grade 12 math, and went on to achieve a grade of 100% in first year university Calculus. I pursued a business degree, a teaching degree, and a Masters of Arts in Mathematics Education and now own a math & science tutoring studio in Toronto where the focus is on specifically eradicating and extinguishing the notion that ‘some people just can’t do it.’

Do we “live in a society that wants to change us into mathematicians and direction-followers,” or do we (and should we) live in a society where everyone has the opportunity to decide if they want to be a mathematician or direction-follower?  I see hundreds of students a week, most of whom do poorly at math because of a lack of confidence and a deeply embedded sense of inability. I work with students who, once they begin to succeed, are incredibly empowered by the realization that they can do something they believed so deeply that they couldn’t.

Math is more than calculations and Google Maps. Math is the intuitive ability to solve problems, to get creative, to think outside the box, something that no calculator or GPS can do for you. Sure different people may have different natural strengths, but do we really think that giving up if something proves difficult is any way to approach the many curveballs that life throws at us?  You say you’re here to tell us that “most of us cannot be changed." I’m here to tell you that most of us can be changed if given the opportunity, the inspiration, and the impetus to want to change. I’m living proof and I hope my story speaks to those discouraged and disempowered by your message that their brains perhaps simply ‘don’t work in a particular way.’ Your brains all work just fine – now go embrace that mathematical aptitude burning within and find a problem that needs solving!

Math Could Be Cool: A STEMinist Perspective

image.jpeg

  Fact 1: Miley Cyrus isn’t out there touting her love for all things STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in between twerks.

Fact 2: teenage girls are watching her gyrate her way across the globe, hungrily gulping down everything she does. The science is simple: teenagers eat up popular culture, and media sources simply aren’t serving them anything that makes math and science remotely appetizing – in fact, quite the opposite.

The Scoop

Early in October, The Globe and Mail published Educators still trying to attract more women to technology, science fields, which sums up the key point: girls are just as mathematically inclined as their male counterparts, yet their participation in post-secondary STEM programs is dismal at best. Why? Today the ‘nature’ argument is long gone. We can no longer argue that boys are better at math and science – in 7 out of 10 provinces, the opposite is true! That leaves us with ‘nurture.’ Authors Hammer and Alphonso suggest several plausible reasons that girls might be discouraged from pursuing STEM, including the fact that “girls in North America view high-tech and engineering fields as nerdy, for people who don’t have good social skills.” They have hit the nail on the head.

I see hundreds of teenagers weekly at The Math Guru, a tutoring studio I founded to make STEM fun, accessible, and, most importantly, cool. Why? After years of research, I found that the main reason girls opt out is because of the reputation STEM has. Girls have told me point blank that they would rather flunk math class than be known as “that girl.” For high school students, the dearth of job opportunities for those without a math and science background is nothing compared to the perils of being labeled a (gasp!) nerd.

We’ve seen numerous initiatives attempt to get girls interested in STEM, showing them exciting career possibilities and the many ways math and science can be used in real life. But let’s face it: function is not what coolness is made of. Ideally, Hollywood would do its part and create more multi-dimensional female protagonists. I wholeheartedly congratulate ER and Grey’s Anatomy for the increase in women who have opted for med school over the past decade – after all, who can resist the possibility of an emergency room encounter with the likes of McDreamy? Unfortunately, we have little say in what version of ‘cool’ gets pumped out of the 90210 factory next, so to win girls over we need to do our part to counter Hollywood’s negative stereotyping.

Grassroots: What Can WE Do?

While we can’t necessarily tweak Miley’s twerk, we can promote role models such as Natalie Portman and Emma Watson who wear their intelligence with pride.  We can use media literacy in our math and science classrooms to help teenagers deconstruct media messaging in order to understand the consequences of the disempowering stereotypes they are being sold. We can begin to examine our schools and the messages they send to young women regarding math and science. We can begin to wonder whether more interactive approaches are needed in the classroom and whether academic environments in which STEM learning takes place really need to be as unfriendly and antisocial as they often are.

The teenagers that thrive with me every day endlessly comment on how much they love being in a space where math and science do not simply exist in a nerd-vacuum, and how happy they are to be able to be themselves while being intelligent. That, to me, says it all. If we can find a way to allow coolness and intelligence to coexist rather than repel one another, we will begin to see a generation of teenage girls as enthusiastic about STEM as they are about the latest pop culture wrecking ball.

Why wait? Start now!

There are so many creative ways that we can all be a part of changing STEM culture - Check out the following list of people who are already changing the equation, and get inspired!

1. Team "We Made It": Earlier this year I had the absolute honour of attending the web launch for wemadeit, a site dedicated to making engineering an accessible choice that girls can actually imagine for themselves. The site was made for high school girls by high school girls and is super innovative and straight up COOL. Share it with a teenager you know and help them see engineering from a different perspective!

2. Danica McKellar: Best known for her role as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years (ahhh the memories!), Danica has been a huge proponent of making math accessible and attractive to young women. She totally comes from the same camp as I do, believing that media stereotypes give math a bad reputation and that it is up to us to market math to girls in a way that speaks to them. She has an awesome book series aimed at teaching girls math in a lexicon they can actually understand - it's awesome, check it out!

3. GoldieBlox: Marketed as "toys that give girls confidence in problem solving," GoldieBlox is aimed at fostering girls' problem solving skills and showing them just how awesome engineering can be! Most recently, GoldieBlox revealed a new doll, Goldie, who actually has limbs that MOVE (sorry Barbie, you may have won the battle but...)! Goldie comes with a 9-meter zip line kit that kids can build - HOW cool is that?! Not convinced? Watch Goldieblox's viral video, guaranteed to give you goosebumps!

4. Roominate: As seen on ABC's Shark Tank, Roominate is DIY dollhouse kit to the power of awesome! Roominate allows kids to design and build furniture and entire STRUCTURES, and helps them totally perfect their spatial skills! Roominate has won a ton of awards for being an innovative toy in terms of encouraging STEM development - so cool, I want!

5. Think About Math: Every year I run a workshop at The University of Waterloo's Think About Math! (TAM) conference for Grade 9 girls. TAM is designed to get girls excited about math and my workshop focuses on breaking down media stereotypes surrounding STEM & Femininity - it's basically a makeover - for math! The application period begins in February - I know that's forever away, but it's never too early to start dreaming big! For more info, click here!

 

Confidence = Competence: Investigating Ontario's Math Crisis

Inside The Math Guru, a math and science tutoring studio in Toronto. Lately it seems as though Septembers are plagued with a flurry of dramatic crisis-alerts regarding the fact that math education in this province is in some sort of horrendous state and that Ontario's children are two seconds away from being rendered innumerate for life. It's always the same story: elementary school teachers are unqualified, discovery learning has replaced rote learning, kids don't know the basics, math is taught too abstractly and kids are disconnected from real life applications and well, the culmination of all of these facts which is essentially that Ontario's education system simply isn't serving its population.

On August 27th, 2014, we heard the same story, AGAIN, courtesy of the latest EQAO results which came in, proclaiming:

"Literacy success rates are high in Ontario elementary schools; math achievement drops again in Grade 6 and shows steady improvement in the Grade 9 applied course."

Everyone freaked right out. After all, if kids are learning less and less math in their formative years, they're going to have a pretty tough time in high school, and an even harder time getting into the university program of their choice. The fact is that math at the elementary level has gotten a little confusing given the change in curriculum and the advocacy of teaching methods that many find questionable and potentially ineffective. The truth is that math has always been a subject that a large percentage of students have struggled with. However, there is more to our declining math scores than simply our shift in pedagogy.

Most math-haters-turned-lovers (I being one of them) can tell you that the biggest factor in their shift in emotional and intellectual affinity for the subject was, in some capacity, due to an awesome teacher. We all remember that teacher who changed our lives, who instilled in us passion for a subject where there once may have been none. A teacher who is well-versed in his or her teachable and who is determined to help transform young minds, doesn't need to be told HOW to teach - they don't! A good teacher can read his or her students, and knows their subject well enough to understand what is needed in order for students to fully grasp what needs grasping. I have a feeling that if we looked at math classrooms before discovery learning was officially implemented, we would have seem many passionate math teachers USING discovery teaching of their own volition. Why? Because a teacher who is confident in their math abilities wants to share with students the many beautiful intricacies of math. They want to show kids that math applies to their lives. They want kids to understand that math is EVERYWHERE, not simply confined to the pages of their potentially outdated math textbook. The problem is, that in order to teach kids how to discover something, in order to teach them the many intricacies of anything -  you need to feel confident in the fact that you have the knowledge that you're responsible for imparting. THAT, I believe, is where the real problem lies. The day after the EQAO results came in, I made a cameo on Global Television's "The Morning Show" and suggested that perhaps the real problem with the way math is taught lies in teacher confidence. After all, teacher candidates aren't required to have ANY mathematical credentials - not one! Imagine trying to teach a Grade 6 class how to understand fractions when you haven't seen one in ten years!

The good news? There IS hope! There ARE schools whose teachers LOVE math and are committed to instilling that love for math in their students. There are schools who are taking initiative to make math a priority and to debunk the notion that kids simply default to hating math because, well, who doesn't? Malvern Collegiate is one of those schools. Their Grade 9 math scores have soared over the past two years - the reason? Real life examples, teachers who offer support to all of their students, a math department that works as a team, classrooms where pressure isn't an issue, the use of the abstract AND tangible, and above all, teachers who KNOW their course content and how it fits into the grand scheme of the entire math curriculum.  As one student explains, "No one fell behind because we knew what we were doing … she was a very good math teacher and easy to learn from." Simple, isn't it? For those of us stressing out about the fact that math at the junior level is suffering, schools like Joyce Public School kick to the curb the stereotype that elementary teachers can't teach math! Teachers make math a priority, going so far as to host an innovative and accessible math games night for parents and their children in order to equip parents with the tools they need to get their kids doing math outside of the classroom!

I think we need to stop focusing on the red tape and instead concentrate on what seems obvious: training and hiring teachers who truly know and understand what they are being qualified to teach. Why isn't this a given? Why are we allowing teachers to graduate and teach course content that they self-admittedly claim not to be comfortable with? Why are we even admitting these potential teachers INTO our education programs in the first place?!

The fact that our math scores are declining is a product of many reasons - we need to stop pointing the finger at 'new math' and take a look at ALL of the factors involved in order to begin to reverse this trend (a LOT of math words in that sentence!). Unfortunately, our kids don't ALL go to schools like Malvern Collegiate and the onus is on us to find ways to augment what they may or may not be learning in the classroom. So, what can you do if your child's teacher simply isn't making math make sense?

Toolkit: How to fall in love with math when you're falling behind

1) Get a math tutor! Seriously - individualized help can make a huge difference, and some kids really are too anxious to ask for the help they need in front of a giant classroom. Having a personal math mentor can make all the difference in falling in love with a subject you've been struggling with.

2) Enroll your child in an extracurricular program that teaches the skills that their teacher might...not be so familiar with. Kids lives are packed with fun after school programs - why shouldn't math be one of them?! Programs like Spirit of Math take classroom learning to the next level by providing a fun and specialized learning environment while still in a group setting.

3) Make math a part of your everyday. Okay so fine: classroom learning seems too abstract. What can you do? There are SO many ways to integrate math into daily activities. In fact, once you take a look at your day to day, you'll realize that you're DOING math when you don't even know it! I spoke about this on Global's The Morning Show and CBC just released a great article outlining ways that parents can take a more active role in their child's math education - and enhance their own while they're at it!

4) Invest in some awesome math games and workbooks. There are a TON of math related apps and online games available. My personal favourites are IXL and Coolmath. Of course - to me, nothing beats the good old fashioned board game. Take a family trip to one of the many board game cafes in our city - problem solving at its finest!

Have a thought on this topic or an idea for mathematically frustrated parents or teens? Comment below and let's get the math party started!

Worth A Thousand Words

Okay okay, so not only are pictures worth a thousand words, but let's face it - for those visual learners out there, sometimes pictures make math a thousand times easier than your math teacher does! Last week I was on Global, talking about how to get yourself into back to school mode. Yep, I know - such a celeb! Vanessa Vakharia, owner/founder of The Math Guru Math & Science Tutoring Studio

One of the things I mentioned was that the hardest thing to do after two months of soaking in sun, is to simply get back into the ZONE! Let's face it - sadly we haven't all been using math in every day summer-life (even though we SHOULD be), and as a result our brains are a bit math-mushy. So fine, maybe dusting off last year's math textbook isn't exactly what you want to do on the FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, but perhaps checking out some super awesome inspiration math gifs and videos is exactly what you DO want to do (read: SHOULD do)!

Starting to train your brain to think mathematically goes a long way - think of your brain as a muscle! Pumping iron does more than just get you shredded. It sets the foundation so that when you need to randomly lift something heavy, you're armed and ready to do just that! The same goes for getting your brain math-pumped! Getting your brain used to looking at the world through math-coloured lenses enables you to employ problem solving skills when you least expect to need to - like in EVERY DAY LIFE!

We get that you might not be ready to scour your textbook pages right now - so sit back, relax, and let the pictures do the talking while your brain does the learning!

21 Gifs That Explain Mathematical Concepts (Better Than Your Teacher Ever Did)!

Math For The Visual Learner

8 Videos That Prove Math Is Awesome

8 Videos That Prove Math Is Awesome

Top 10 Funniest Math Videos

Top Ten Funniest Math Videos from Mathspiggy

Why Peace. Love. Pi.?

tmg-vv-bling-bling-wordpress.jpg

Well, as the sweet scent of September soars in the air (along with the equally sweet scent of those school supply stacked Staples aisles), I figure it's time to do what I should have done LAST September: Start a blog!!! Hold up, we're moving too fast. Let's start at the beginning:) Hello, my name is Vanessa. I am the founder/director of learning and inspiration of The Math Guru, a boutique math and science tutoring studio in uptown Toronto which I started almost four years ago! Why did I decide to do such a thing you ask? Well, when I was in high school, I actually failed Grade Eleven math twice. Twice! Like many people who haven't found their educational guru, I hated math; until one day, I found mine.

My parents weren't too pleased with my whole "I'm just not a math person" thing and so they decided it was time for an educational switch. So, in Grade Twelve I headed to another school - and found my mathematical guru. Not only did my new teacher speak to me in words that made sense, but she inspired me to find the 'math person' within - the one that lies within us all. Most importantly, I learned that even though some things don't come easy, that with enough perseverance and perspective that those things do come - one way or another.

I couldn't believe that I had wasted such a huge chunk of my teenage life convinced that math just wasn't something that I was ever going to 'get', that this wonderful world of mathematics was simply off limits to some one like me. Totally insane, right?!

I became totally obsessed with the fact that there are a TON of people out there who just THINK that - believe that there's this type of person out there, with mathematical powers or something. Where do people get this idea in the first place? Why did I, for example, think that I didn't belong to this group of people?! Was it because I didn't fit the mathematical stereotype? Because I was artsy? Because I didn't have glasses and a pocket protector?! Because I totally didn't know the first thing about video games?! I was obsessed. So, I decided to get a closer look at the STEM fields (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the way that those fields intersect with teenage culture - or don't! Pretty cool, I know. I ended up publishing a paper titled Imagining a World Where Paris Hilton Loves Mathematics and becoming an expert on the ridiculous ways that the media generates and enforces stereotypes of what it means to be a mathematician!

So back to the whole tutoring centre thing. After all that, I decided that my goal in life was to rid math & science of their bad reputation - to salvage those intricately beautiful bodies of knowledge from the clutches of media-induced stereotyping: To make math and science cool. That's right. Believe it! But first, I wanted to make sure that I did whatever I could to make sure that no one ever ever went through life thinking that they simply weren't 'a math person.' And so...I started The Math Guru, a super chill boutique math and science tutoring studio! TMG is a safe space where tutors are people too, where learning takes place with tea lattes in hand, and where anyone and everyone can learn to love math and science!

Over the years, I have seen an amazing number of math-haters convert to math-lovers, have watched countless teens change their view of what it means to love math, and have had the absolute pleasure of watching those who think that math and science are totally beyond them eventually get their dream job - you know, the one you imagine you'll have when you're a kid and you haven't learned that society views math and science as the domain of a chosen few.

Most amazingly though, I have seen countless teens experience what I experienced when my world was rocked by an awesome math teacher: not just that "I can do anything" feeling, but that "I can do anything and I want you to feel the same way too" feeling.  It's not just me that wants to make math and science accessible to everyone - it's all of the wonderful kids and adults that walk through our doors. How cool is that?!

So, what's the deal with this blog? Well, this is where you will find my musings on a variety of things including (but not limited to!) math and science education, teenage culture, our education system, STEM, and well, the way all of those things intersect - or often don't. You won't just be hearing from me - but from guest bloggers as well. You know what they say: It takes a village!

If there's a particular topic that you're interested in reading about, if you've got ideas on how to begin to unravel the tightly wound STEM stereotypes out there, if you get your hands on something I absolutely have to see/share, or if you want to write for The Math Guru, get in touch - I would love to hear from you!

The ocean can do what the drop cannot - let's DO THIS!

peace. love. pi.

vaneSSa