Gigi Butterfield, Sarah Strong

*High School teacher Sarah Strong and High School student Gigi Butterfield co-authored a book, **Dear Math: Why Kids Hate Math and What Teachers Can Do About It**. In it, the two sort through hundreds of student letters to math and walk through themes that emerge in the letters and how teachers can center these stories to design classrooms where all students can flourish.
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*It is our great pleasure to share Chapter One, “Dear Math, You are Dreadful,” with you!*

Dear Math, I hate you! You fill me with deep dread in my everyday life.

Eli walked into class on the first day of the semester and slumped down at the table where his name was written on a three-by-five card. On the screen, instructions asked the students to add information to the card, namely, preferred pronouns, interests, and one mathematical strength. By the end of the three-minute timer, Eli’s card was empty, and his head was down on the desk. I knelt down by his desk.

“Well, you haven’t really given it a chance,” I claimed, attempting to infuse lightness and truth into the young man who was clearly grumpy. It was, after all, the first day of class.

“Oh, I’ve been doing this for twelve years. I hate math, and there is no reason for me to learn it. I don’t see why I would give it a chance,” he lauded.

I took a deep breath and looked at the other twenty-four kids in the room who were ready for learning and my attention. Their body language was in stark contrast to Eli’s, which was seeping with dread.

Knowing I wouldn’t win over this student in a day, I said, “Okay, I hear you. I hope to hear more about what brought you to this point of hatred for mathematics. For now, can you at least agree to share your thinking on the puzzle we are working on today with our group? I know your group will appreciate what you have to say.”

He rolled his eyes, and I walked away and launched into teaching the class. I knew the next day, he would be taking on my Dear Math assignment, and I would get to hear more about the journey that led him to this point.

The next day, he wrote …

Dear Math, You are boring, repetitive, and not interesting. You always are difficult. You will never understand. Every single mistake causes even more problems. Math, you have always been my least favorite class. I never got the chance to fully understand the different math concepts, which would make me frustrated and not care to continue to struggle. It made my brain hurt. Although I truly dislike math, I can say it has been one of the more challenging obstacles in my life. I would avoid asking for help to try to learn it myself, but I continued to struggle. This has made me think in different ways and made me work a little harder to think outside the box. Although I can keep talking about my frustrations with math, one way math has helped me grow is by allowing me to be more patient because I know it will take time to get the reward, in this case, the answer. One thing I do look forward to in the future is increasing and improving my ability to solve math problems by myself. I also think that math should not be rushed. So many times, I hear students saying they aren’t done or need more time, and I thought we were supposed to work at our own pace. So I think it should be structured to put the groups of kids who are in the same understanding of the topic. From, Eli.

Dread is an adjective meaning “to involve great suffering, fear, or unhappiness; extremely disagreeable.” While many students don’t name dread explicitly in their letters, other words arise, like hatred, cruel, pain, turning clear skies gray, unenjoyable, and annoying. We selected the term “dreadful” to sum up these letters because it seemed to truly capture the depth of dislike this group of students had for math.

Dear Math, Why do you even EXIST? I’m genuinely asking because it is such a complex subject. I don’t want to be rude or anything, but you can be a PAIN sometimes to everyone. I’ve had other people agree with me on that, but it’s something we can overcome.—Edwin, tenth grade

Why do so many students find math class dreadful? And why do so many adults have negative comments about the subject?

For Eli, his dread came from math being “repetitive, boring, and not interesting.” For Edwin, the dread came out of it being “a complex subject” and included questioning the purpose of math’s existence. For Hayley, the dread stemmed from a feeling of being “dragged along” without understanding, while math itself was holding on to so much certainty. For other students, the dread came from a bad experience, a poor grade, the stifling of their thinking, or the way they were treated in class if they didn’t know something.

While the stories in the letters are powerfully descriptive, the statistics are alarming. In some school districts, over 50 percent of students fail their freshman math class. The situation doesn’t improve in college. Rather, a 2011 report found that, across the country, only 50 percent of students attain a passing grade in college algebra (Gordon 2008). It’s no wonder that widespread dread exists for being required to do something that often leads to failure.

Dear Math, You are best classified as a regrettable necessity. —Andrew, twelfth grade

It seems students and adults of all ages dread math, so when does it start? I have worked with teachers and led an exercise in storytelling about their math experiences. One activity we do is create graphing stories. Many teachers describe their learning journeys with math like the examples in figure 1.

*Figure 1: Graphing stories of feelings in math class by grade in school.
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Students express positive feelings in early elementary school, and then by middle school, a negative trend begins. Many of their storylines head back upward if they begin teaching math, but those negative years are extremely common. In students’ Dear Math letters, many of them identified their “moment of fracture” in their math identity as occurring in third or fourth grade, while the second-largest percentage was in middle school. Further research on math anxiety shows that it might not start at one age in particular, but it was always accompanied by some type of test or performance (Boaler 2017).

Dear Math, Never liked you, never will, you cause me so much pain. —Rayon, seventh grade

The feeling of dread for mathematics may be classified as stemming from pervasive math anxiety—a problem so massive that a whole field of research is now dedicated to it. A study conducted in 1978 concluded that about 68 percent of students enrolled in mathematics classes experience high mathematics anxiety (Betz 1978). More recently, a 2009 study showed that about 17 percent of the population have high levels of math anxiety (Ashcraft and Moore 2009). Societally, we perpetuate this thinking, normalizing the idea that not being mathematical is just a regular consequence of life. People joke and make light of this type of thinking, whereas the idea of being illiterate is much less culturally acceptable and rarely the butt of jokes in the media.

Dear Math, I hate you; you make my clear skies feel grey. In a world without you, I don’t know what I would do, though your own significance doesn’t have to involve me. I’ve never liked your certainty of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it ends up with just me unknowingly being dragged along. —Hayley, twelfth grade

Because math invokes such strong emotions, often feelings associated with dislike and dread, I hope that we can hold space for these emotions and create activities where students can explicitly share their stories and unpack their feelings. Beyond caring about math and our students, we need to care about our math stories, particularly mathematical identities: how students see themselves as mathematicians and participate in mathematical spaces.

When he was president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Robert Berry stated, “Effective teachers affirm positive mathematical identities among all of their students, especially students of color.” But why should we care about our students’ mathematical identities? Can’t we just teach them the processes they need to know?

The answer to this is, as we will see throughout this book, an emphatic “No.”

The learning process inherently includes the development of identity. In his book on communities of learners, Étienne Wenger (1998, 215) explains, “Because learning transforms who we are and what we can do, it is an experience of identity. It is not just an accumulation of skills and information but a process of becoming—to become a certain person or, conversely, to avoid becoming a certain person. Even the learning that we do entirely by ourselves contributes to making us into a specific kind of person. We accumulate skills and information, not in the abstract as ends in themselves, but in the service of an identity.”

Students naturally form their own mathematical identities with or without our involvement. If we want students to engage in a better relationship with math, we need to guide them toward more positive mathematical identities. Recognizing how the unpleasant feelings they already have affect their identities is a strong first step.

Dear Math, You are a cruel, heartless mistress. —Tony, twelfth grade

Being able to share such strong emotions clearly creates the space to forge a path out of these emotions. Students may not even need advice or solutions for the problems they are experiencing; they may just periodically need to vent. Students come into our classrooms each day with a great variety of stories. If we do not create space for them to share their stories, then we are making it more difficult to help them create healthier relationships with math overall.

Dear Math letters are a critical tool for understanding and overcoming dread for two related reasons. The first reason is that the letters give students a space to share their story, vent, and unpack the ways they have become the mathematician they are today. We can normalize experiences from the past, process them, and collectively make sense of a path forward.

The second reason comes from the teaching standpoint. If we don’t ask, then we are designing curricula and making instructional decisions relying on our assumptions from prior experiences, our own math experiences, or feedback we get from the loudest students. I used to follow the ignorance-is-bliss concept, ignoring how my students already felt in favor of making my class as awesome as possible to help them love math. How wrong I was. I regularly assumed that the students were as ready to think about math as I was and that they were excited to learn it in the same ways that had excited me.

I am reminded of Chimamanda Adichie’s famous 2009 TED Talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she states, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Dear Math, I have always hated you; I can never do you. Sometimes I get the answer, but that’s only on the better types of math. But I guess I need you because those ‘Sometimes’ are important in daily life. But I still hate you. I never look forward to doing you, I always look forward to finishing you and going on with my day. —Sam, tenth grade

Mathematics classrooms are an easy space to become “one story.” There is a math problem, there is a way to solve it, everyone tries it and does well or doesn’t, and then we move on to the next problem. Dear Math letters hold space for and give voice to all the different math stories in the room. They allow healing for those with traumatic math stories and encourage the co-creation of stories that are whole and complete. Most importantly, they tell us things we wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t asked.

Every time I open a new Google Drive folder containing my students’ Dear Math letters, my heart starts beating a little faster. I know some letters will reveal a dread for the subject that I must engage students in each day for an entire semester. I’ll have to address their feelings in the ways that I teach. If the dread that students feel is connected to feeling rushed, we might try out fewer activities in our class that focus on speed (Chapter 6 has great examples of this). If their dread is connected to their grades, we might consider alternative grading activities or more equity-oriented assessment strategies (Chapter 5 has ideas for this).

But if I didn’t ask, then I might delude myself into thinking that everyone was walking into my class ready to have a good time. Furthermore, I might unintentionally impose my own math story and identity markers onto my students, joining the oppressive figures I sought to dispel. Delusion and oppression are unhealthy starting places for a semester of work together.

So, how do we engage students in the Dear Math letter writing? The first step is to necessitate the letter. Oftentimes, students aren’t used to writing in math class. They also are unfamiliar with being reflective and metacognitive about the discipline of math. Lastly, they likely haven’t ever personified math and “talked to it.”

I usually set up the assignment by saying:

“As we start this school year, it is important that I get to know you as mathematicians. Who you are as mathematicians and the stories that formed you before you got here are incredibly important to me. It is my goal that you would all feel like you are learning and growing each day as individuals and as a collective math community. Without understanding who you are, I cannot properly design and facilitate this math classroom for you. I’ll start by reading my Dear Math letter to you.

After my story, I ask, “What did you hear in this letter? What surprised you? What parts of my story relate to yours?”

After the discussion, I say, “Today, we are going to write ‘Dear Math’ letters. I look forward to learning more about your math story. Thank you for sharing your stories with me.”

**Questions for Prompting:**

- Tell me about a time in elementary school when you felt successful in math class. What happened?
- Tell me about a time in elementary school when you struggled in math class. What happened?
- When your friends talk about math, what do they say or do?
- What is one way that math has helped you grow?
- What is one of your greatest mathematical strengths?
- What is one of your greatest mathematical challenges?
- How do you plan to engage with math in the future? (Going into a STEM field? Using math in your career? In your life? Tackling complex problems in a systematic way?)
- What can you thank math for?
- How would you change math classrooms?
- What would you like more of in math classes?

After students submit their letters, I set aside about an hour per class to read over the letters and listen to students’ stories. I underline, share celebrations and connections, and thank them for sharing their letters with me. While it is easy and natural to feel defensive and jump into “solutionitis” when reading the letters, particularly ones that are steeped in dread, I try to receive the stories just as they are. As we will see in the coming chapters, the work of forging a new identity will happen during the semester and year, not just in the moment of writing and responding. This first pass at the letters gives me valuable narrative data. This data comes both in extreme stories of dread (like the ones referenced in this chapter), extreme expectations for the class that feel out of line with my hope for the class (like the letter from Eli, who asks for academic tracking, a practice that is out of alignment with the philosophy and design of my school), and overall trends.

A variety of stories should be expected from a class, and if there is a disproportionate amount of negativity or dread in a classroom, then it is imperative that you create specific activities to acknowledge and transform on a class level. In this case, I will often share some student writing (anonymously) with the class and then share a goal and track progress toward that goal. For example, I might say, “My goal is that you find value in coming to math class each day, and I’m going to design activities that help the lessons feel valuable to you. Each week, I will give you an exit ticket, and I will ask you if what we did this week felt valuable. In this way, we can keep getting better at meeting our goals.”

Another activity I have done with the Dear Math letters is to have students exchange their letters and read the other person’s letters for connections and surprises in the stories. This could be anonymous or, if expectations are stated from the beginning, with the names intact. When students read each other’s letters, they immediately begin an empathy-building exercise that serves both to understand that your math story is just one of many and that our math community is composed of a beautiful, diverse set of learners who all hold value in the space.

I have had students read over their own Dear Math letters with different lenses depending on our work that week. In one project, we were working on understanding our shifting math identities, and the students needed to self-identify a “fracture” in their math identities in their stories. After each student identified a “fracture” and the grade they had been in when it happened, one of their assignments for the remainder of the semester was to find a student in that grade and offer them support on their math homework. The students who did this assignment attested to feeling great about helping other students and about realizing that the types of math that had caused such deep wounds in their math identities were now very doable for them.

Dear Math letters are certainly not the only way to promote this type of storytelling and identity unpacking. For more activities and projects to help unpack students’ mathematical identities, refer to Appendix A: More on Math Identity.

As learning theorist Yrjo Engestrom (1995) stated, “Identity work is never ‘done,’ it is always ongoing. Although a person’s identity is not determinable, neither is the meaning-making involved in identity work entirely free but, instead, is mediated by the discourse and practices of people’s communal social activity systems.” Because of this, we create space for students to share the stories that formed them and for the possibility of evolution in those stories over the course of the year. The possibility of evolving is related to the idea of a growth mindset, and, while it’s not the only point, believing that success can be found is an important step. Even day to day, the ways students feel about themselves as mathematicians can shift dramatically, but we can design a class where they can flourish when we tune our eyes and ears to their stories and ways of being in a math class.

Dear Math, I have hated math ever since third grade; it’s annoying and unenjoyable. It used to be that I liked math, but that all changed in third grade when we had to learn our times tables, and I was always stressing. I like normal multiplication, the kind where you can ACTUALLY take your time, but not this. —Andrea, seventh grade

Amber and I met when I was her teacher in her freshman year. As a student, she seemed driven and justice-oriented. As a mathematician, she was brilliant at organizing information, she asked many questions, yet she lacked confidence. One of the first times we met, she told me that she had test anxiety, and as we worked together, I noticed that her anxiety was pervasive in her work. She would rush to an answer, second-guess her thinking, and then her brain would “shut off” (her words), and her emotions would take over. In her sophomore year, she wrote a Dear Math letter in which she unpacked this anxiety and the resulting feeling of dread that was now a part of her heading to math class. Her letter that year read:

I really like you. But you don’t come naturally to me. I have to work extra hard to understand and really conceptualize what you have to offer. There have been times where I have felt discouraged, frustrated, and exasperated, especially on tests, which is where I believe I can never fully express all of the things I know in a way that helps me be successful. —Amber, ninth grade

By reading and responding to her Dear Math letter and giving her space to unpack her story and mathematical identity, Amber’s teachers were able to dig deep into what was blocking her achievement and connections, and they highlighted her strengths. From there, they helped Amber build a new story for herself about who she was as a mathematician.

I had the opportunity to teach Amber again her senior year, and, as we always do, Amber wrote another Dear Math letter, reflecting on her mindset growth and identity during her high school experience. She wrote:

While the term ‘math growth’ might inherently imply academic growth, I think for me it’s a lot more about a shift in attitude and my reactions when I am faced with challenges. I developed a sense of patience and open-mindedness for the first time ever. I no longer got as frustrated with myself when I didn’t understand something and would allow myself to take my time. As I reflect on my past experiences and emotions related to math, I can confidently say that I have a strong foundation. And this is a great amount of growth for me because two years ago when I wrote this letter as a sophomore, I could not say that I felt like I had a strong foundation in math. —Amber, twelfth grade

The notion that math is dreadful is not a terribly uncommon one. This dreadful relationship depicted in these student letters is a mere echo of the greater public opinion. In fact, it’s so common that it has become a trope in the media. My favorite example is in the movie *Mean Girls*, when Damien memorably embodies dread upon hearing Cady’s plans to join the Mathletes and fearfully notes, “That’s social suicide!”

Damian’s dread perfectly represents the cultural conundrum of math: if you’re bad, you’re stupid; if you’re good, you’re a nerd. I can recall feeling the effects of this mathematical fork in the road, becoming stuck shooting for some nonexistent gray area or third path. In the early days of my freshman year, the anxiety of “the decision” crept toward me, appearing on whiteboards and through hallways. Which path would I choose: “scholastic slowness” or “social suicide”? Although it may seem as though the ultimate moral lesson in every fable, story, and movie is to rise above the social pressures of coolness and run into math’s comforting, outstretched arms (Cady does end up joining the Mathletes and learning incredibly pertinent lessons wildly applicable to her situations in the greater world—how perfect!), doing so is rarely so simple or perfect. Both paths, in this case, are surrounded by pressure and labels. Eventually, I made my choice based on not what I thought would be the best, most academically and socially fulfilling route for me but on the outside pressures in my life. My family’s aspirations for me just outweighed that of my classmates’ opinions, and so my fate was sealed (time to buy up all the fanny packs and satirically large glasses in town): I was a nerd.

This decision brought about a whole other type of dread, one that pressured me to constantly act at peak performance. To get a wrong answer, especially publicly, was to move backward on the path. This pressure was exhausting and caused a lacking math mindset. When you’re too afraid to be wrong, you end up missing out on learning why you aren’t right. While this demand for constant correctness did admittedly result in a relatively high GPA, it was rendered arbitrarily in terms of genuine learning. Ensuring my report card remained devoid of any number beginning with a three was exhausting and all-consuming, leaving me without sufficient room to equally value my grades and my understanding of the concepts being taught.

Throughout my first semester of ninth grade, I learned that the notion of the binary paths of arithmetic, much like Cady’s limit, “doesn’t exist” and, furthermore, that sometimes there is no moving backward or even forward. I learned that math is merely (and beautifully) the conceptualization of answering questions. It brings tangibles to the intangible. Math is one big, beautiful mess, like a game of Chutes and Ladders, which allows for high levels of performance and true understanding. In studying it, you might end up going up, down, left, or right, but no matter what, you’ll always be learning. That doesn’t seem very dreadful at all.

- How does your math story shape how you teach math?
- Why might it be important to recognize our students’ math stories and math identities as we design our classrooms?

In spring 2008, the High Tech High GSE published the first issue of *Unboxed, its *journal of adult learning in schools. From the beginning, our goal was to spread good ideas that can improve schools. The project cards were the first step—to make it easy to hand an idea from one teacher to another, we designed a journal with some of the content already freed from the book’s binding.