We are middle-school teachers who are returning to school this year refreshed, relaxed, and happy after a fun summer … teaching math! We teach at The Children’s School, a small, progressive, independent school here in Oak Park. This summer we ran a two-week math camp for rising 6th – through 8th-graders with a wide range of math backgrounds and abilities. We used a summer camp curriculum developed by math education professor Jo Boaler that focuses on exploring big ideas in mathematics and on changing students’ beliefs about themselves as math learners.

In Oak Park, we hear many stories about students who suffer from math anxiety. These are smart, creative, charming, articulate children whose anxiety surrounding math is so severe, it renders them paralyzed when faced with anything math-related. Math anxiety can pervade the child’s life, harming their self-efficacy and their relationship to school and learning. It impacts family life, too, as parents battle with their children about going to school in the morning and doing homework in the evening.

Even in less extreme cases, math anxiety is cause for concern. In one survey, 93 percent of Americans reported experiencing some degree of math anxiety. But why? People are not born with a fear of mathematics. Rather, they grow up in a culture that communicates in many ways — including media portrayals — that math is hard and only some people can be good at it. 

At the same time, math is seen as a gateway to a good life. Success in school, admittance to college, and access to high-paying jobs all seem to depend on it.

The result of these conflicting messages is that children grow up in a society that is saturated with anxiety about math. Adults tell children that they must do well in math, but cultural messages tell them they probably won’t. Parents communicate their own anxieties about math, for example, by worrying aloud about what opportunities may be missed if a child does not get into an advanced math track early in their school career. 

And teachers whose performance reviews depend on their students’ test scores communicate to children that they must do their very best on timed tests. How scary for children to fear letting down their parents and teachers!

We can do better than this. Indeed, we must do better. It is ironic, given the focus in math education on the utility of math, that people who use math in their jobs frequently describe having played with mathematics as children. They enjoyed patterns, puzzles, problems, and exploring relationships in numbers. Many Americans have grown up believing that only “math people” enjoy math in this way, and everyone else just has to suffer through it.

Math camp showed us that enjoyment of mathematics isn’t just for special people of a certain intelligence or disposition. Everyone can engage in math as play. Giving everyone the opportunity to do so is an equity issue because school math experiences directly influence who wants to keep on doing math as they get older and who wants to drop math as soon as possible. Children and adults need to understand that there is no such thing as a “math person.”

Math camp also gave us a new perspective on teaching math during the school year. Because we and the students had so much fun together, we have come to view all our math classes as an opportunity to deepen children’s enjoyment of school. To be clear, we are not talking about making math more palatable through games. We have seen how all students can experience the pleasures of actually doing mathematics: thinking slowly and deeply about a problem, finding patterns, sharing conjectures, and exploring ideas. Like reading, doing math can be a wellspring of interest and pleasure, both in childhood and throughout life. But in order for this to be the case, children need a space to do math that is protected from the pressures and anxieties of the adults around them.

Math anxiety is not something that simply happens to children; rather, it is their predictable response to experiences and messages that are created by adults. Math camp taught us that math can be empowering and joyful for all learners. We believe all children deserve to experience this, and we would recommend that other schools try out this program of summer math that grows children’s happiness, confidence, curiosity, and interest in mathematics.

Gloria Mitchell and Mika Yamamoto are middle-school teachers at The Children’s School in Oak Park.

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