Creating “aha” moments for students

“I found a program that seemed like it was catered for me. It was unbelievable. The fact that it was for experienced K–8 math teachers was very unique. Then when I got here, it was even more eye-opening.”

“I’m not good at math” is a sentence that Mary Sartorio ’24 dreads hearing. As a lower-school math specialist at the Pingry School in Short Hills, New Jersey, she aims to make numbers less intimidating. Sartorio comes by this goal honestly: Despite her current position, she grew up feeling disgruntled in her own childhood math classes.

“My experience with math wasn’t so great when I was a younger child, even throughout most of high school. It was pretty subpar. I followed all the steps, procedures and algorithms, but I didn’t really understand it. And then at some point, it was presented to me in a way that was accessible, and it clicked,” she said.

She aims to create those “aha” sparks for her students.

“One of my goals is to figure out, ‘How do you get through to kids?’ This is like a puzzle for me. It’s a life’s passion,” she said.

Sartorio lamented that many students are categorized into boxes when it comes to math: those who can do it and those who simply can’t.

“It has a tremendous negative impact as they get older and older, and it just spirals out of control,” she said.

With this goal in mind, at Mount Holyoke, “I found a program that seemed like it was catered for me. It was unbelievable. The fact that it was for experienced K–8 math teachers was very unique. Then when I got here, it was even more eye-opening,” she said.

In the classroom, she appreciated that every instructor was not only a math teacher but also someone who could relate to graduate students on a professional level. However, the discussions transcended math to dive into issues of equity and status, which resonated with her, having come from a competitive private school. Especially in the realm of math, students can feel inadequate and insecure when they struggle.

“I work in an independent school that’s competitive. I don’t think I ever would’ve considered that had I not been in this program,” she said. “And even though this was a virtual program, teachers were so accessible. You just feel so close to them. They’re encouraging, and they give you practical ways to improve your practice. It’s not about theory.”

At Mount Holyoke, she received the Emerging Leader in Mathematics Scholarship. Thanks to her master’s experience, she felt empowered to push beyond her traditional teaching role to seek out a math specialist leadership position at Pingry. Now she thinks about explaining math in more nuanced ways and influencing her colleagues to do the same.

“My love is math, and I thought I knew it all as far as content and teaching. But what I learned, and what I do on a daily basis now, is to emphasize operations with my kids. We all know it as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, but what exactly does that mean? What action does that do to the numbers you’re working with? This might sound minor, but it’s been such a shift in thinking: modeling and representing what you’re doing in multiple ways.”

Speaking of multiplying, Sartorio is now urging her Pingry peers to attend Mount Holyoke too.

“I’ve already started recruiting other teachers in the lower school and planting seeds that they must become part of this program because it’s awesome,” she said. “We’re all working full-time. That in and of itself is exhausting. And then on top of it, to do work and have deadlines is hard. But it was so worth it. I’ve learned more in this program than I learned at any other time in my life, and I’m not exaggerating.”

Also not an exaggeration? The fact that anyone can do math. Really.

“I would love everyone to know that math, if presented in a certain way, is accessible to everyone. Once [kids] have strong number sense and know how to manipulate numbers, they will be able to do anything. I’m confident of that. Then they’ll enjoy it,” she said.

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