Matt is a 5th grader in his second year in our Math is Cool program. Matt can only be described as gifted at math. According to one student coach, “he is a genius, he is super smart, he knows problems almost no kids at his age know how to do. He didn’t have an outlet for this or a place to put that. When he joined Math is Cool, he thought a lot of himself and was very confident in his math ability and was independent and liked to work by himself.
In 4th grade, he called himself the ‘secret weapon,’ and he did a lot of the problems for the group and took over. At Masters he placed first as an individual in his division, a really big deal. By the end of his fifth grade year, he was becoming a lot more cooperative. He didn’t just do the problems by himself, he worked with someone and walked them through it. He became good at not just saying ‘write this answer down,’ but explaining to other kids why it was the answer and ensuring the rest of the team understood it.
He loved coming to practices and took Math is Cool very seriously. MIC taught him to care about something, to put his heart into something, to work hard. At the competition I saw that he was laser-focused and his team took first place. What I really saw in him the most was personality development and growth into a leader. And of course he found a place where he could really thrive and be the absolute best at something he loves.”
Students like Matt are a minority in our Math is Cool programs, but every one of our programs has some of these kids. It is like finding a diamond in the rough to discover a student like Matt and it’s sad to imagine that without this program, these kids would be missing out on success and development in a true area of giftedness. It’s thrilling for our student coaches who themselves love math to get the opportunity to work with these kids and to know what might become of their future once they find an outlet for their passion and ability—and to get to be a part of fostering that.
Through their own words, we see how important it is for parents who have students like Matt to find a program like Math is Cool for them. One parent wrote that they valued MIC for, “An opportunity to work on high math problems. Currently, he is bored in his regular class. He looks forward to Math is Cool because it is more challenging.” We believe that programs like this can be crucial in keeping parents of high-achieving students committed to their public schools—and we know from research that the presence of these students and their families can affect the achievement of all students in a school, especially in schools with many low-income students.
We know that a student like Matt is extremely likely to become one of our student coaches in the near future, and we hope that in a few years he will return to his own elementary school to pay it forward and be a role model for the kids there. We are already beginning to see this happen. We have students who are participants in our Lakes Middle School program who also help coach in one of our elementary programs.
As GTS’ programs continue and grow over the next several years, we expect that many/most of our middle and high school student coaches will have been introduced to Math is Cool in one of our elementary programs. We are able to help them succeed in math as youngsters and then, when they are older, we’ll be able to give them a leadership opportunity as well as a way to remain connected to the staff and students at their own elementary schools. This is the kind of rich network of relationships that community is all about.
Alex is a 4th grader whose profile is more typical than Matt’s within our programs. Alex came to the program under duress two weeks after practices started. His parents didn’t know about the opportunity because when Alex got the flyer for Math is Cool, which was handed out to all students, he tore it up and didn’t bring it home because he hated math.
Because a few spots in the program remained, an email went out to parents informing them about the program, and his parents forced him to come, bribing him with a prize if he tried it. One of our coaches specifically remembers Alex’s face when he walked in on the first day. The coach describes, “He clearly didn’t want to be there. His face said it all. We started with math riddles to get critical thinking going, and that’s when he started to enjoy being there and talking to the other kids that he had never really talked to before.
During the process, he was getting very excited about saying his answers. Two hours later we received a message from his mother, thanking us for doing this program, claiming he was super happy, he loved this. His growth during the program was phenomenal. When he first came, he was shy with adults and student coaches and he was fine at math, but he didn’t shine and got easily frustrated. By the time the competition came, his team did amazing, and during the verbal portion of the competition that people can watch, he held his team together.
He was a leader, he figured out a lot of the answers (and ones we didn’t even teach him to do), and he was the glue for his team. He made it so that the whole group talked and helped the team to be cohesive and work together.” Alex had the intellectual capability to be very strong in math, and to pursue a career that involves math, but he needed a program like Math is Cool to spark his interest in the subject.
Alex’s enjoyment of Math is Cool despite his previous lack of affinity for math is far from unusual in what we see. All of our programs have a good number of kids who are either negative or indifferent about math when they enter. Only 52% of our students say that they enjoy math in school. But the Math is Cool team environment lights them on fire. Among all students, 100% indicated that they liked going to Math is Cool practices and being part of the team. 100% of parents agree that “My child had fun in Math is Cool.” This is one of our favorite statistics.
Almost half of the kids coming to our programs have not enjoyed math in the past. This program changes that in a dramatic way. They have fun, grow in confidence, and gain a new interest in and commitment to the subject. Many of these students are engaged by the competitive aspects of Math is Cool, some are taken in by the social aspect, and others enjoy the math itself, which is very different from the math curriculum in our schools (in that it involves more play, tricks, speed, story problems, etc.) This is the kind of intervention that is likely to influence these children in profound and lasting ways for many years to come.
Sadie is a fourth grade student. She is shy and has never been very confident in math. Her mom came in the second week, after practices had started, and said that Sadie was very nervous and might not like it, but she’s going to give it a try. Sadie was worried about getting wrong answers and being embarrassed in front of other kids. A coach recalls, “She came in the first time, and I worked alone with her on long division because she was behind the other students, since she missed a few practices. She is a very respectful child, so she did not act frustrated, but I could tell she was frustrated with herself. We kept trying, though, and it eventually worked. A lightbulb went off, and the widest smile.
From that day on, she sat with her friends and kids she didn’t know, too, and when she didn’t know something, she wasn’t embarrassed or frustrated, she just asked for guidance from other kids. It was beautiful to see the cooperation among her and her friends. This shared learning process taught her friends patience and taught Sadie resilience. From then on, she contributed to class, she laughed, she had fun, and she loved the competition.
Here is what Sadie herself had to say about her Math is Cool experience, “At first I was nervous then it was fun and I started to learn things, and it helped me in school a lot. Everyone was really nice and encouraged me to try new strategies and different ways of thinking. The competition was fun and everyone was nice. I made new friendships and learned things I haven't learned in class, so when my teacher introduced it helped me solve the problems faster.”
Sadie’s parents said, “MIC has been a tremendously positive experience for us. At first my daughter was reluctant and nervous that she would have the wrong answers, but the positive and supportive environment created by the Math is Cool team made her feel at home.
Her confidence and math skills have grown through this program.” Sadie is similar to about half of the kids in our programs. For them, the program is fun, social, academic, and confidence-building. They are getting academic support that helps them in school and they’re having fun while doing it. In response to the question, “Did the Math is Cool team help your math skills? How so?”, student responses included:
100% of parents agree that their child learned new skills through Math is Cool. 88% of elementary students said Math is Cool practices helped them to develop their math problem-solving skills. Among middle schoolers, who had slightly different survey questions, 100% indicated that participating in Math is Cool has helped them to feel more secure when answering math questions in school, and 86% indicated that going to Math is Cool helps them to enjoy studying math in school. 100% indicated that Math is Cool has helped them to understand more advanced math, and 100% indicated that Math is Cool has helped them to develop their math problem-solving skills.
Research tells us that math confidence is perhaps as important as actual math skill in predicting future participation and success in advanced mathematics in school. We are thrilled that 100% of parents agree that “Math is Cool has helped my child’s confidence in math.” Parents frequently mentioned “confidence” when citing the ways the program has benefited their child:
Among students, 83% agreed that Math is Cool increased their confidence in math. A substantial portion of students who said “no” or “maybe” to whether or not Math is Cool has increased their confidence in math also answered “yes” to “I have always loved math,” indicating that they were confident and fond of math before starting the MIC program.
Almost all students who answered “no” to “I have always loved math” said “yes” to “math is cool practices have helped me to like math better than I did before.” A majority of those who said that Math is Cool made them like math better than they did before (72%) also indicated that they have always loved math, meaning that the program furthered and deepened an interest that was already there.
This is a bit confusing, we realize, but what these combined results reveal is that we are meeting our goal to reach a variety of kids: to take those who already love math and enrich and deepen that interest. And to take those who do not enjoy math in school and have never really wanted much to do with it and to show them that math can be fun, engaging, and worthwhile.
Adam is a 5th grader who has special needs. His mom came in the first day of practice and told a coach that her son was bad at math and that he probably wouldn’t have the attention span for the classes. She didn’t think it would work out, but he wanted to come to try it.
Our programs are unique in that any student in the school who is in the proper grade is welcome to attend. Every pre-existing Math is Cool program in our community that we are aware of has been open exclusively to students in the Advanced Learning Program, a program for students of high achievement levels. There is logic to this because the Math is Cool competition is extremely challenging and the curriculum is designed for students who are talented at math. Including students with a range of ability levels, as in any classroom, makes teaching and learning more complicated. However, we believe that any student who wants to spend 1-2 extra hours in their week learning math should be allowed that opportunity, and we have not yet had to turn any student away. We are fortunate that by incorporating student coaches, we are able to divide students into small groups so that different groups can work at different levels.
In Adam’s case, he surprised his mom and became an active participant in Math is Cool for the entire season. A student coach describes the experience of having Adam in the program, “What I saw most from him over the course of the year was a flowering of personality. After the first three weeks, he came in almost every day to help me set up, talk about his day, and ask me how my day was. He was nice to all the other students, polite to the coaches, and he was one of the most enthusiastic kids we’ve ever had in our programs. He wanted to be at every practice, he liked socializing and especially interacting with the student coaches.
He was not at the level of the group for math, or even close. When possible, we would do something separate with him, but there wasn’t always time. Even so, what he developed was an enthusiasm toward math. He received gold stars in math in his school classes and he was very proud of that and wanted to make sure that his coaches were proud.”
Our teacher-coordinator at one of our elementary programs is also the school’s special education teacher, and in a follow up interview when the season was complete, an administrator at that school mentioned how many special education students had participated in their Math is Cool team. She noted that the math was not at the proper level for them, but that they had fun and made friends, it built their confidence, and that they were absorbing some of the content by being there.
The growth we observed in some of our student coaches was striking. Kerry signed up to be a student coach after hearing about the opportunity from her high school math teacher. She came to our first training as a quiet, almost withdrawn student, and we frankly had the impression that she probably wouldn’t stick with this. The challenge was magnified when she was placed with a team of student coaches who were quite different from her, very much oil and water.
GTS met with Kerry one on one about four weeks into the program because she was unable to attend our teaching circle, and at that meeting she expressed a lot of frustrations and challenges with coaching. She found herself blending into the background, letting the other coaches take over, and didn’t feel useful or engaged. She was thinking about quitting. GTS talked her through these challenges and gave her some strategies to try in her next practice, then followed up for the next few weeks to see how it was going and find out what other supports could be provided. She honestly surprised us in making it through the season and reporting that things were getting better.
The real transformation we saw in Kerry, though, occurred following the competition itself. Kerry returned from the competition completely enthused and full of ideas for next year. She indicated that now that she has seen a Math is Cool competition, she understands what they need to do in practice and how to train the students. She indicated that she wants to start early next year and meet twice a week instead of once a week. She was overflowing with excitement to come back next year to run a much stronger program. Kerry’s team members are moving on to college, so she will be the lone returning coach to one of our programs. It is exciting to know that she will bring such energy and enthusiasm with her and that, as a veteran of the program, she will get to be in a leadership role with her new co-coaches next fall.
This has likely been and will continue to be a transformative experience for Kerry because it has really stretched her. We have student coaches from many backgrounds: popular kids, math geeks, kids who want something that will look good to colleges, kids who love working with children, kids who want to be teachers, kids who enjoy volunteering, quiet kids, and total extroverts. It is fun and rewarding for us as an organization to see the different ways in which each of their personalities is stretched and challenged through their coaching experience.
We are very pleased that 100% of our student coaches indicated that coaching Math is Cool positively contributed to their “leadership skills.” They also felt they grew significantly in “my ability to work with a team,” and “my own math skills.” Comments we received in our survey of student coaches included, “My highlights were really to see the kids grow in their skills and excitement for math and the competition. This was so exciting to see because I got to help them learn and understand that I am a part of the reason why they know what they do.” Also, “I loved working with the kids and helping them learn more about math and prepare for the competition. This was a positive experience and I’m glad I could be part of it.” And, “The highlight of my coaching experience was the Math is Cool competition itself. It was amazing to see the growth of knowledge in the students since the first practice, and their over the top excitement was amazing. This was a positive experience for me because I love interacting with children and I felt a space to harbor my math ability.”