When Challenge and Engagement Go Hand-in-Hand
Introducing elementary students to a problem solving approach to math
Lindsay Melia is an elementary math teacher at TVT Community Day School in Irvine, Calif. She uses the Beast Academy curriculum from Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) to challenge and engage her 2nd through 5th-grade students. She describes a refreshing approach to math learning that drives great results in achievement and also opens students’ minds to the power of problem solving.
Melia’s journey through education, to eventually becoming a teacher, took some twists and turns as she discovered that failure is merely a part of the process. "As a young student, [math] was very easy. I was often ignored by teachers because I could figure it out on my own, but that also meant I never struggled. I didn't know how to handle a struggle or a challenge. It wasn't until freshman year of college in a calculus class that I started to struggle and decided 'I'm not a math student.' I got what I needed to get through the class, but I wasn't interested anymore. It wasn't until I got into statistics when my interest came back," she says.
Tutoring in statistics reignited Melia's interest in math. Instead of going down the research path, she relocated back to California and concentrated on teaching. Soon she began working with a curriculum that helped students develop the understanding that the most challenging problems can also be the most fun.
"By having this Beast Academy curriculum, our kids are learning very early on that it is okay to struggle in math. It's expected. It's just a sign of learning, and it's a skill that they can apply in any area of study. Struggling in math on a problem and attempting four or five times is becoming very normal, and the kids are very comfortable with it. I can see how it transfers to even playing on the playground, being frustrated, and being okay with a feeling of frustration. We're teaching advanced kids who normally get the easy 'A' or show up and figure out the problem on their own that there is still something for them to learn even at the second-grade math level."
Beast Academy is famous for its trophy problems, and Melia enjoys the reaction of students who ask for help, only to hear that even their teacher has never solved that problem before. It creates a dynamic and connection that students crave. As she adds, "We work through hard problems together, and it builds a strong community because they know that I enjoy it as much as they do. I fail in front of them, and it's okay; that's just part of the process. It's made me feel more open to making mistakes in the classroom and seeing the benefits that arise out of that experience."
The classroom environment involves open discussion around the subject of math that provides a collaborative environment for learning. There is a freedom to the process that helps students exercise problem solving skills in a variety of ways. Melia tells the students that there are many options to the learning process, but points to the main areas to accomplish. As she explains, "You might see one group of kids working on a computer. You might see another group of kids on the big whiteboard solving problems or kids on the ground doing their math packet. Because they have a choice, there's a lot of buy-in, and kids work at their pace."
As active participants in a creative approach to math learning, students take on more ownership of their learning, and Melia finds herself caught up in the excitement. As she explains, "I feel like I have a dream job. I get to come in every day and teach this fun curriculum that has a comic book. We get to know the characters, and they joke with us. The kids love it. I honestly feel lucky every day to get to do it. I love doing puzzles and problems as much as the kids. I'm very honored to be a part of it."
About Lindsay Melia
Lindsay Melia studied Economics and Communication at the University of California in San Diego from 2003-2007. She received a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential from California State University, Long Beach with a Subject Matter Authorization in Mathematics.
After teaching for two years, Lindsay pursued her long-time dream of education reform and studied Education Statistics and Research Methods at the University of Arkansas. Lindsay returned to California and started teaching middle and high school math at TVT Community Day School.
She now teaches elementary math using the Beast Academy curriculum to 2nd-grade through 5th-grade students at TVT Community Day School.
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