Our Plan in Action: Inspiring Students with Inspirational Math

On several recent mornings, seventh-grade math students gripped plastic discs in one hand and pencils in another while drawing elaborate spirals and designs across their papers.

They were using the classic Spirograph system to study common factors and complex geometric shapes.

This lesson came right on the heels of what’s known as a Week of Inspirational Math in several Upper School math classrooms as a way to kick off the school year. The concept of Inspirational Math is the brainchild of Jo Boaler, a professor at Stanford University and the author of nine books on teaching math. She will also make an appearance on October 25 at the Chinese American International School through SPEAK, a coalition of K-8 San Francisco schools that provides parent education.
Like the Spirograph project, problems using this Inspirational Math approach delve into rich, involving concepts that replace the standard drilling and memorization that can turn students off to the topic. The lessons involve short films, group work, and highly visual materials, and mistakes are encouraged. The challenges are considered “low floor, high ceiling,” which provides students with open-ended questions and allows for easy differentiation because there isn’t one single answer to a problem — advanced students can just push themselves further in the activity.
The Week of Inspirational Math is in its second year, and after its inaugural, 98 percent of teachers surveyed said that their students were engaged while working through the problems. Ninety-six percent of students said that the curriculum kept them motivated to continue working even when tackling tough problems.
Over the summer, three teachers — Upper School math teacher May Wong, and fourth-grade teachers Tammi Abad and Antona Stanley — used the Idea Lab professional-development concept to examine how to incorporate this Inspirational Math concept into their classrooms, to make learning math something that students look forward to instead of dread. Ms. Wong and Ms. Stanley took Jo Boaler’s “How to Learn Math” online course, while Ms. Abad took a “Mindset and Mathematics” workshop in Oceanside.
All three teachers reflected on how well the curriculum echoes a growth mindset. “I want to provide opportunities for my students to use real data that’s messy rather than ‘real-world applications’ that are contrived examples in the textbook in order to have them really think like mathematicians,” Ms. Wong said. “When students see examples and problems that have a fake context, it reinforces the notion that math does not apply to them. I want to cultivate curiosity.”
The SPEAK event with Jo Boaler, “Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages, and Innovative Teaching,” takes place on Tuesday, October 25 at 7 p.m. at the Chinese American International School. Admission is free for Burke’s parents and educators, but RSVPs are required! Click here to RSVP, and click here for more information about the event.
Burke's mission is to educate, encourage and empower girls. Our school combines academic excellence with an appreciation for childhood so that students thrive as learners, develop a strong sense of self, contribute to community, and fulfill their potential, now and throughout life.


An independent K–8 school for girls
7070 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94121
Phone: 415.751.0177 Fax: 415.666.0535
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