2021 Student Essay Contest: Undergraduate Honorable Mention

Mathematical Wholeness: Sarah’s Journey

By Lucy Conover (Pitzer College)

Interviewee: Sarah Strong (High Tech High)

Seconds tick by like incessant woodpeckers living in your headspace. Beads of sweat hit the test, the inkjet integral signs bleed down the page. Your pencil outpaces your beating heart.  You hyperfocus on that one wood knot on your desk, as a lone tear drips down your face and hits the lacquered surface.
Fast forward three years and you are trying to find something to count for your math GE. As you scroll through the classes filling up, all you can think about is that fateful day in high school. The fear of failure wells up in your veins. You hesitate to register for the one math class that is open. Without an ounce of optimism, even a microliter of excitement, you drag yourself to math class thinking all hope is lost.
In comes a woman working to change this narrative: Sarah Strong.
Math trauma is a story far too many people know well. It is the inhibitor of creative growth, the antithesis of critical thinking, the feeling of being betrayed by math. Sarah, as her students call her, is a math teacher and education coordinator who wants to eliminate math trauma for good. Enter Mathematical Wholeness: an organization founded by Strong this year to provide virtual counseling to help learners of all ages rewrite their traumatic math stories through math therapy. By starting Mathematical Wholeness, Sarah is entering a new path on her math education journey.
According to Sarah, a major paradigm shift in the math world is necessary. One which not only changes how learning is assessed, but how people view themselves as mathematicians. “Art has maintained its beauty and richness because it hasn’t been subjected to the standardized test world,” explains Sarah. Why does math have to be so constrained and exclusive in elementary school settings, while students typically thrive in and enjoy other subjects?
As a child, Sarah felt her creative thinking was hindered by the way she was taught to be mathematical. The positive attention surrounding her abilities was focused on organization and following directions, not on critical thinking or her mathematical ideas. This gave her a fixed mindset, which caused great panic if she could not solve a problem quickly. Sarah’s fixed mindset as a kid did not stop her from pursuing her math journey, in fact, it serves as a point of inspiration for how math education can be restructured.
At Point Loma Nazarene University, Sarah became the first woman on her mother’s side of her family to attend college. Growing up, Sarah’s parents supported her career but that educational path was not “baked into her DNA,” as she puts it. Although her classes were disproportionately male at PLNU, there were some strong female math professors who inspired her. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in mathematics, she embarked on a journey of redefining what makes math powerful and how math learning needs to change.
When Sarah started teaching math as an assistant in a traditional public school, she noticed a problem right away, the lack of inclusivity and room for self-reflection. The binary atmosphere of “I can or cannot do this or that” made kids feel stuck, without a growth mindset. The lack of diversity in the field made students feel like their voices were not being heard. This further pushed Sarah to work on a more inclusive math experience, through project-based learning.
In 2006, Sarah joined the High Tech High community, a consortium of 16 project-based schools ranging from elementary to graduate level. Here, Sarah blossomed in her identity as a project-based educator. Starting out as a middle school math teacher, Sarah now oversees new HTH teachers at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education and supervises the math curriculum across all 16 schools. What makes project-based education (often called PBL) so important is the focus on learning and growth versus strict assessment. PBL is a widely accepted pedagogical technique in other disciplines, but the common stigma with math and PBL is they do not mix. Sarah is changing this. “Students do not learn something the exact same way, [we need to] come up with other types of accountability like digital portfolios, presentations of learning, and other holistic assessment systems that would be more inclusive of who feels like they are a part of mathematical communities. I would want us to form more of those genuine explorer communities not competitive or performance based.”
Sarah encourages future explorers in the math field to be “people with power who uplift others and get excited about other people’s ideas.” Mathematicians have the incredible gift of contributing to how we quantify and perceive the world. As a math educator, you have the ability to impact how students perceive themselves. Sarah found her clients at Mathematical Wholeness develop their math traumas early on in the classroom. This is why inspiring math students from a young age is so important. Sarah hopes Mathematical Wholeness can heal and uplift learners using “math power.” The power to reverse people’s misconceptions that they are “not math people.” While the program is in its early stages, Sarah already has multiple clients and hopes to not only help children but adults break down their harmful math narratives. She hopes all mathematicians use their own math power to uplift others in their own way.
Sarah is a math visionary. From educating incoming teachers into the High Tech High system, to streamlining and evolving the ever-changing math curriculum, to starting math therapy—project-based learning is a “lifestyle,” as Strong puts it. She is a mathematician who not only teaches the subject, but embodies it. Students of Sarah Strong leave her class knowing they can change the world, one equation at a time.