Math is intrinsic to students’ lives

“I was waking up at 4:30 in the morning. But donut shops are open, so I got donuts. And I have such a great cohort. I have never been bored.”

Aristotle Ou ’24 discovered a passion for teaching after enrolling in AmeriCorps. He worked with the California Conservation Corps, a state agency that hires young people, many without degrees, to complete trail work.

“If they don’t have a high school diploma, they go to school at night to work toward it. I started teaching math there, and these students questioned everything, which pushed me to get my teaching credentials,” he said.

He could also relate to their skepticism. Ou enjoyed math as a kid, but he wasn’t always a fabulous student.

“I show kids my middle school report card, and my highest grades were not in math. And when I went to college, I was an engineering major, but I failed my first physics class, which I think would shock most people,” he said.

This makes Ou an especially empathetic middle school math teacher at Laguna Middle School in San Luis Obispo, California. He discovered Mount Holyoke thanks to the magic of Twitter, where he happened upon an active, enthusiastic cohort of students talking about the M.A.T. program. He was also drawn to the middle school focus for the same reason that so many teachers are: It is a formative time when so many kids can develop negative or insecure feelings about math.

“A lot of times, what we value in the classroom is not necessarily what mathematics is. For instance, I was talking to another person in my cohort about board games. My family is from Cambodia, and we learn card games at a young age. There are things people do at home that are intrinsically related to math. Lots of people do math-y things but don’t consider themselves a math person because they separate it from ‘school’ math,” he said.

Ou takes a more expansive approach, encouraging students to make mistakes and allowing them to revise their work.

“There are conflicting messages in math education, where we want kids to take risks, try things and make sense of ideas, which we know is messy. But then we have to grade them. We tell them that, if you make a mistake, ‘You’re doing it wrong,’” he said.

Mount Holyoke’s approach aligned well with his personal philosophy. Here, the focus is on helping students contextualize math in ways that make sense in their lives, to understand relationships between numbers as something more than abstract, using story problems and observing real-world patterns.

“When they’re stuck, I think about a context that we can use to help them make sense of the idea,” such as figuring out how to split up a plate of fictional tamales in equal parts to teach division.

He also appreciated Mount Holyoke’s teacher practice assignments, where his cohort would try a new practice and evaluate how it affected their students.

“It’s such a powerful, reflective process. I started having students take pictures with their work. And the next day, I would feature those photos on our whiteboards. It’s a small thing, but it really does shift the culture a bit, just seeing themselves and the work that they’re doing,” Ou said.

Speaking of math, the graduate degree was worth it despite the three-hour West Coast time difference.

“I was waking up at 4:30 in the morning. But donut shops are open, so I got donuts. And I have such a great cohort. I have never been bored,” he said.

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