The following is an excerpt from the Seattle Girls’ School (SGS) Newsletter written by Barbara Frailey, Assistant Head of School. Building a math culture that allows all students to thrive is quite an undertaking and we love hearing from others that are taking on the challenge. Thank you SGS for allowing us to share your message with the Zeno community!
I’ve always considered myself a “math person.” I had some great teachers, beginning in late elementary school, who helped me connect with my mathematical curiosity, and helped me see my own capabilities. I loved the satisfaction that came with unraveling juicy math problems, but I especially appreciated the opportunity for creative thinking and problem solving that math provided.
Having confidence in math helped me feel secure that I had access to an important tool that would help me understand the world better. I wasn’t intimidated by data, for example, and I didn’t feel “shut out” of any conversations or any possible career paths. At the time, being a girl who loved math and was recognized for being “good at it” made me feel special, and sadly, atypical. By the time I was finishing high school, I figured I would not choose a math-related career, mainly because my perception of those fields didn’t match the more socially-connected vision I held for my adult life. But I stuck with it, double majoring in math and women’s studies in college. While there, unsurprisingly, I developed a more feminist perspective on the study of math, studying research on math anxiety in girls, and getting a more nuanced understanding of why and how women have been underrepresented in math-related fields.
Last week I shared my “math story” with the girls at a school-wide Community Meeting. In my presentation, I also talked about Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal, which is basically the math equivalent of the Nobel Prize. In middle school she struggled with math, but her curiosity was ignited when her older brother introduced her to an elegant solution to a classic problem, a version of the “fist bump” problem that our 7th graders tackled just a few weeks ago! From there, she has pursued a career in which, by working across different subfields of pure mathematics, she has provided valuable insights that have changed people’s understandings in math and in related fields like physics and engineering.
I shared Maryam Mirzakhani’s story, as well as my own, with our students because I’ve always seen the power children and teens have to turn themselves on or off to math, and not much breaks my heart as much as hearing an 11-year-old girl tell me, “I’m not good at math,” or, “Math class is boring.”… Having a strong math background, I believe, has helped make me a better educator, but it has also helped me interpret the news, make responsible decisions, and participate fully in a democratic society. I want the same for all our students.