Solving Math Problems Like a Girl

Girl doing school work in classroom
Girl doing school work in classroom

She was paralyzed. I had handed her a pencil, and asked her to start the test when she was ready. Let's call her Amelia. Amelia was one of three triplets and her mom had called a few days prior explaining that one of her daughters had fallen behind in third grade math. Could I help? She came in for her placement test so I could evaluate her. She started with some basic addition problems, but as soon as she saw the double digit addition and subtraction problems, she started panicking. She was so afraid, she almost started crying.

Like many of us, I wanted to have a career where what I did made a difference. Initially, I thought that meant working as a foreign services officer or for a UN- sponsored NGO. I read lots of Nicholas Kristof and saw myself advocating for women's health care in India or Rwanda. But after traveling to some of the most impoverished parts of the world, I decided I could be most effective right here in my native New York City.

For one of the richest countries in the world, our students are struggling. Of the 1.1 million children enrolled in New York City public schools, about 87,000 children are homeless or are living in temporary housing. About half of the children living in New York City, or 500,000 students, are living below the poverty line -- that's more than eight times the number of students who are enrolled in Boston public schools alone. Though these statistics are overwhelming, making a change still means taking it one child at a time.

I worked in an after-school tutoring program for two and a half years. During this time, I noticed that most of the kids who came in struggling with their confidence were young girls, especially when it came to math. We still live in a society where girls are encouraged to pursue arts and humanities while boys are expected to gravitate towards math and science.

I eventually gave Amelia the first grade math evaluation. Afterwards, I asked her about school. We did some problems from her school textbook together and talked about things she liked to do. She told me that she loved to read but hated math.

"I'm just not good at it."

"How do you know?" I asked. "Would it help you to know that I used to be like you?"

I too had been that girl who doubted herself especially in all things math. I loved to draw and sing and dance and thought of myself as more of an artist than a "math person." I made collages, watercolor paintings, and read books. All the boys in my class were always the best at math. I accepted that that was the way things were. Maybe I would be an actress, but never a scientist or even a writer. It wasn't until fourth grade that I enrolled in the same tutoring program I now worked for, and soon became a math whiz. I loved being the first one done with a quiz, and especially finishing before the boys. It was the same satisfaction from my mathematical victories that I had from beating them in sprints in gym. I was one of the fastest kids in my class and decided I also wanted to be one of the best students in my class. On weekends, I would go to soccer practice and then come home and "practice" math.

​Amelia and I began with the basics and talked about how being "good" at anything is about being exposed to something or someone who will give you a chance. I gave her goals -- 100 problems in 20 minutes. Then I asked her to beat her last time. I told her to practice every day. We talked about Michael Jordan. How he had to practice every day before he became the best basketball player in the NBA.

"Who?" she asked.

"The LeBron James of the '90s," I said.

Where she had seen time-oriented goals as terrifying, she now grew to love the thrill of competition. After a year, she started asking me about percentages and I introduced her to material on high school level worksheets. She learned about slope as a reward for completing certain problems and doing her corrections. This for a girl only now in fourth grade.

I gave her all of my Harry Potter novels. She devoured them. On days when she had finished early we would talk about the characters in the books. What about Sirius Black? Did he really kill Harry's parents? I would recommend books from the library at our center, and she would tell me about some of the new YA novels that were popular.

I have moved on from that place of employment, but often think of Amelia and the others like her. Perhaps because I saw so much of myself in her. I recall the many teachers, mentors, and parents who believed in me. There are lots of kids who, like Amelia, don't like something in school simply because they're not good at it -- girls and boys alike. Fewer boys don't read, and even less adult males read fiction. In the biggest school district in the country, it is impossible to tailor lessons to each and every student -- kids come from every country on the planet. Some have different needs requiring different teaching skills. From the vantage point of my current role at the central office of the New York City Department of Education, I've learned that the Division of Translation and Interpretation offers over-the-phone translation services for schools and offices in over 150 languages. And yet this still does not cover all the languages spoken in the homes of New York City students.

Sometimes what it comes down to for struggling students is having one person who believes in them. And, sometimes, success can be as simple as giving a girl a Harry Potter book.