Dear Math Letters Can Help Overcome Math Dread

Many students fail to understand the value of math, and some grow to hate it. 15-year veteran math teacher, Sarah Strong, and her high school student, Gigi Butterfield, strove o discover the root of this problem by addressing concerns about negativity around teaching and learning math and why kids hate math (at least some of them). Digging into the feelings math evoked in hundreds of middle and high school students—that math is unnecessary, oppressive, and intimidating—the authors of the book “Dear Math” explore ways to spin student expressions of problem-solving unworthiness into an antidote for their disdain for math by writing Dear Math letters.

Sarah believes 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. Here’s one example:

“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

Gigi and Sarah first met when Sarah was Gigi’s freshman year teacher. As a student, she seemed driven and justice-oriented; as a mathematician, she was brilliant at organizing information and she asked many questions, yet she lacked confidence. One of the first times they met, Gigi confided she had test anxiety, and as they worked together, Sarah noticed that Gigi’s 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.”

By reading and responding to her Dear Math letter and giving her space to unpack her story and mathematical identity, Gigi’s teachers were able to dig deep into what was blocking her achievement and connections, and they highlighted her strengths. From there, they helped here build a new story for herself about who she was as a mathematician. Sarah had the opportunity to teach Gigi again her senior year, and she 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.”

Want to try your own Dear Math letters? Here are some questions for prompting Dear Math letters:

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?

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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