I am Rachel Devaney, and I live in Nashville, TN. I have spent the last nine years working in schools with students in grades 5-12, as both a teacher and instructional coach. I currently work as a computer science curriculum designer.
- All children are capable of excelling at all levels of math.
- Math is about creativity and flexibility.
- Children need strong numeracy skills to pursue big goals.
- Families play an essential role in their child’s math learning.
Some potentially surprising facts:
- I have degrees in Comparative Literature, Spanish, and Curriculum and Instruction – take note of the absent math degree.
- I taught for five years as an English and Social Studies teacher before becoming a math instructional coach – a job which I had no business doing but loved.
- I enjoyed math growing up, but I wouldn’t say I was a math person. My journey to becoming a math person began in 2016 when I found myself spending a lot of time in high school math classrooms – see my Math Person story below for my full reflection on this process.
Some not surprising but potentially interesting facts:
- I have a dog named Llew and a cat named Pepa. They will make appearances from time to time.
- I have worked in both charter and traditional public schools. My experiences have taught me a lot about our public education system.
- Max is my editor (and husband). If you don’t like my writing style, please send your suggestions and complaints to him.
- Jo Boaler is my hero.
My Math Person story:
I was one of those kids who was good at math because I was really good at following procedures. I loved AP Calculus in high school, but my passion for reading and writing was too strong. Upon graduating high school, a future that involved math didn’t cross my mind as a possibility.
However, I remained interested in math and took a stats class and astronomy class my freshman year. My sophomore year, I took two physics classes and was blown away at how difficult they were. Unlike the majority of my high school math classes, physics did not come easily to me. I studied harder for those classes than for the entirety of my other college classes combined. I was drawn to the idea of using math to explain real world phenomena, and I considered declaring it as my major.
I talked to my guidance counselor and was informed that I was late to the game. If I wanted to major in physics or engineering, I would have to take classes over the summer or stay an extra year. When it came time to declare a major, I chose the easy way out: Comparative Literature, Spanish, Creative Writing. Thus ended my foray into mathematics and science.
Upon graduation, I found myself teaching 6th grade English. I was determined to save the world and do my part in closing the achievement gap. I thought often about how children develop dreams, and more importantly, how they develop the confidence and skills to pursue those dreams. As I worked to create a classroom environment that encouraged all students to dream big, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience:
Why hadn’t I developed any dreams that involved math even though I enjoyed the subject in school? Was it a lack of confidence or skills that led me to pursue literature over physics? Had I simply chosen the easy path?
These were hard questions for me. I had always prided myself on being confident and hard working, and these choices conflicted with who I imagined myself to be. Perhaps I just didn’t care enough about pursuing a career in physics. But I couldn’t help but wonder:
What if I had seen examples of female engineers throughout my childhood? What if I had participated in STEM summer camps or after school activities? What if it was an influential physics teacher that encouraged me to pursue engineering instead of an English teacher that encouraged me to pursue writing?
My what ifs continued to grow as I began coaching math teachers – a job I had no business doing, but I was excited to get back into the realm of math. I learned more about the Common Core State Standards and how they pushed students to think about math conceptually instead of procedurally. I read Jo Boaler’s book Mathematical Mindsets in disbelief – page after page described a beautiful and creative side of math that I had never known. More what ifs:
What if I had learned that math is creative and flexible instead of something to memorize and regurgitate? What if my math and science classes had been full of discussion and debate instead of worksheets?
And so I embarked upon my math person journey. I saw math for what is really is: a beautiful and diverse subject, full of creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration.
As I reflected on what our students currently experienced in our math classrooms, I developed another set of what ifs:
What if we taught in a way that enabled students to engage in math in a creative and flexible way? What if we showed students that people who look like them play an essential role in our STEM workforce? What if we created a school where all students believed that they are capable of excelling at any level of math?
I discussed these questions weekly with the high school teachers I coached, and we worked to make these questions come to life. We had small victories, but we were overwhelmed by the extent to which the majority of students either feared or hated math. They knew they were grade levels behind, and this hurt and frustrated them.
I would leave school drowning in my own frustration: How did these kids get so far behind? Whose fault is this? How are we supposed to overcome years of insecurity and failure?
I looked to the research to answer these questions, and I landed in a place I never thought I would land: early childhood education. While I was terrified of making the jump from high school to preschool, there were three facts that I simply couldn’t ignore:
- Developing strong numeracy skills and math confidence starts before children enter kindergarten (aka at home).
- Parents are significantly more likely to engage in literacy activities with their children than numeracy activities.
- Children from low socioeconomic households typically enter kindergarten with lower numeracy skills in comparison to their peers from middle socioeconomic households.
If I want to truly prevent the skill gaps and fear that saturate high school classrooms, I have to go back and start at the beginning.
So here we are. I am not a parent (yet), and I am not a math education professor. But I have extensive experience in education, and I have seen the consequences of how we approach math now.
The research has answers to these questions, and my goal is to lay them out for out for you in a way that is accessible and, hopefully, enjoyable. Together, we can create a world full of math people.