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Using “Dear Math” letters to overcome dread in math class

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Students learning math
 (BRO Vector/iStock)

Excerpted from Dear Math: Why Kids Hate Math And What Teachers Can Do About It by Sarah Strong and Gigi Butterfield. Published by Times 10 Publications.

The importance of mathematical identity work

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

Overcoming dread in the classroom

Isabela 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 and 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.” 


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

I had the opportunity to teach Isabela again her senior year, and, as we always do, Isabela 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.”

Questions for prompting Dear Math letters:

  1. Tell me about a time in elementary school when you felt successful in math class. What happened?
  2. Tell me about a time in elementary school when you struggled in math class. What happened?
  3. When your friends talk about math, what do they say or do?
  4. What is one way that math has helped you grow?
  5. What is one of your greatest mathematical strengths?
  6. What is one of your greatest mathematical challenges?
  7. 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?)
  8. What can you thank math for?
  9. How would you change math classrooms?
  10. What would you like more of in math classes?

Sarah StrongSarah Strong loves creating spaces for her children and adult students to share their math stories. She has taught math to students in grades 6-12 at High Tech High in San Diego and also to preservice math teachers in Math Methods and Deeper Learning in Math courses through the HTH Graduate School of Education. In all of these settings, she has found value in opening up her questioning to allow students to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas in service of a more whole math community. Sarah has consulted with schools and districts around the country as they detrack their math programs and redesign their math classrooms to be more inclusive and center student thinking through practices like project-based learning. Sarah has presented at both CMC and NCTM multiple times on Math & PBL and Student Centered Assessment in math classes. She has authored a few journal articles (Improving Math at HTH with Improvement Science and Deeper Learning in Common Core Math Projects) and an EdWeek blog post on the impacts of traditional grading systems on student math identity development (Making Math about more than the numbers). She also authored a chapter of the book Hands and Minds on assessment. She recently founded a company called Mathematical Wholeness that works with individual clients and teachers in schools to help them unpack their math traumas and forge new relationships with mathematics. 


Gigi ButterfieldGigi Butterfield is currently a freshman at Loyola Marymount University and attended Gary and Jeri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High in San Diego, CA for High School. She is recovering from her fraudulent fondness of mathematics and thrives in situations where she can explore math deeply and ask thoughtful questions of her peers and her teachers. She attended project based learning schools from age of five to eighteen, and is passionate about how PBL plays an integral role in revitalizing heavily antiquated math pedagogies. In HS, she was captain of the basketball team, head of student ambassadors, leader of model united nations, member of student senate, and is still a Jeopardy fanatic hoping to go into comedy writing in her future. No better start to a comedy career than with a dissertation on the reimagining of math education!

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