Shelly Moran, the math coach for the Hopkinton Public Schools, never figured she would be teaching the subject to which she once had an aversion when she was in school.
“I was a reluctant math student,” explained Moran, who has been teaching in the Hopkinton school system for 15 years and for 21 years overall. “Math was harder for me in the younger years. But as I matured, I realized that math was almost like a puzzle and there was more logical reasoning and thinking involved than just basic skills.”
Her experiences have allowed her to empathize with students who are intimidated by the subject, as well as their parents, some of whom are bewildered by the concept of “a new movement in math” they call “new math.”
“I think that the years I spent struggling with math have helped me become a more understanding math teacher for my students,” Moran said. “We’re trying to teach kids the conceptual understanding of the math work rather than just the tricks. I tell my students, ‘I want mathematicians, not magicians.’ ”
In the past, the teaching philosophy was memorization of tables rather than the rationale of solving a problem. Moran, a graduate of Stonehill College, hopes to inspire a new generation of students who can go onto careers in fields such as engineering and the sciences.
“Maybe calling it a movement is too dramatic,” Moran said. “Some of the kids will say they are not good at math, and they get some of that from their parents. I think we need to change that mindset because everyone has math ability.”
Moran previously was a fifth-grade teacher who was able to take on a position as a part-time math coach simultaneously. Now she is the district’s full-time math coach who proposed the summer curriculum last summer for children entering Grades 1-6 to Assistant Superintendent Jen Parson.
“What I really wanted to do last year was drum up some business,” she said. “I wanted to let families and students see how exciting and fun math can be over the summer.”
She lamented that for decades, students had been given summer reading lists but had no opportunities to sharpen their arithmetic acuity.
“It was a really big success,” she said, noting that the students participated on virtual platforms. “It’s fun things — games and puzzles. To show that they completed the tasks, they recorded themselves doing victory dances, which was my favorite.”
This summer, about 350 kids are enrolled in the summer math program.
“I can tell that there is a lot of support from family members,” Moran said. “One of the assignments was to interview their family members and ask them how they use math at home and at school. Some of the parents also got onscreen, so I was able to connect with them.”
Parents said they appreciated the program in response to an email from Moran seeking feedback.
“Summer math was a pleasure, especially with the July weather we had this year,” commented Jonathan Haddad in an email. “It was good to keep the minds fresh and keep the focus on what is to come next year. Jordan and I loved it.”
Anu Radha also praised the program and its impact on her daughter.
“I think it’s a great idea to arrange these sorts of programs for kids, to make sure they don’t forget their math skills over the summer,” Radha emailed. “Sanvi enjoyed doing the math, and the most she enjoyed was the challenge puzzles. She also used to follow the examples which were posted and then used them to solve the problem. It was very helpful.”
Moran said she knows firsthand about how students work to gain confidence in learning new skills, as she is the mother of a third-grader and a fifth-grader.
The biggest reward for her was going to classrooms throughout the district this spring.
“As I was walking away from a school, I would hear the students cheering, ‘Math! Math! Math!’ ” Moran said. “I think the best thing about this is that all students can feel successful.”
During the pandemic, Moran offered math coaching talks virtually to elementary school students. She witnessed students gaining confidence through their experiences.
“I wanted them to see the marriage between rational thinking and numbers,” she said. “I would show a number of dots, for example. Some students would see five dots as three plus two, while others would combine one and four. But everyone came to the same result.”
Being able to teach online offered another outlet to reaching students, Moran said.
“I don’t know if virtual teaching would have been accepted before COVID,” she said, noting that many parents such as herself try to limit their kids’ time on devices. “I do think that some kids have more comfort doing things on their own rather than in a class setting.”
Moran’s role also is to encourage fellow math teachers to experiment in the ways they teach the subject.
“I say that it’s better to have students make a mistake and know why they made it than to do something without knowing why it works and getting it right,” she said.