At Matific, we love teachers who break through to students. So we have asked Alex Kajitani, the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, also known as “The Rappin’ Mathematician” for some tips on bringing joy to math.
Alex has written the book Owning It: Proven Strategies for Success in ALL of Your Roles As a Teacher Today, which was referred to as “Recommended Reading” by the U.S. Department of Education. He is a leading authority on Teacher Leadership, a highly-sought after keynote speaker and has a popular TED Talk. He has also been honored at The White House, and featured in numerous books and media outlets, including The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.
1) How long have you been teaching for? Were you always a math teacher?
I’ve been teaching for 14 years. Before I became a teacher, I managed a restaurant in Santa Barbara, CA. What is fascinating is how often I use my restaurant management skills as a teacher– from dealing with unhappy customers to providing great customer service!
2) What made you love math?
I love how math creates order and organization in the world. While some see math as confusing and difficult, when used correctly, it actually makes life easier and more predictable, as it helps us sort, categorize and keep track of the numbers that help guide our lives.
3) How do you feel when your students tell you that they don’t like math?
Just because someone says they don’t like math, doesn’t mean they won’t like it for the rest of our lives. As teachers, we’ve got to stop trying to force our curriculum into the students’ lives; and instead, see where we can fit our students’ lives into the curriculum. When we can make real-world, and real-life connections with our students, a love for math begins to grow (at ANY age!).
4) Could you tell us a bit about when you started to rap?
You can actually hear the entire story (as well as my rappin’) in my popular Ted Talk, “Making Math Cool.”
5) We are hearing more and more about children with math anxiety, why do you think children are scared of math?
A lot of math anxiety kids have actually comes from their parents. Jo Boaler (from Stanford University) has proven that anybody can learn math, at any age. Even if parents don’t love math, they need to make sure that they don’t pass this stress on to their children. Pay attention to the messages we put out about math– and give kids a chance to love math!
6) A lot of the teachers reading the blog are not prepared to break out into rhyme. Do you have other suggestions or ways that they could breakthrough to their classroom?
Absolutely! Check out an app called “Auto Rap” by Smule. All you have to do is talk into your phone, and it turns it into a rap song for you. No rhyming, singing or dance moves required!
7) Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with individual students who are scared of math or don’t like math, without drawing attention to them in the class?
There is a lot of great music out there that they can listen to (like “The Rappin’ Mathematician”) without anybody knowing what they are listening to. I also love Greg Tang’s site for some wonderful games.
8) What’s the best advice that you were given as a teacher?
Be real. Let the kids see you be passionate, or struggle, or determined. If you make a mistake — own it. Just be real with them about what it takes to succeed in the world.
9) Can you talk about how (if?) teaching has changed in the last decade with common core/technology?
When done correctly, the Common Core and technology put the power of learning in the hands of the students. As teachers we need to give students as many chances as possible to be talking, thinking, reading, writing and sharing their thinking.
10) How do you feel about technology in the classroom?
Technology in the classroom is great — as long as students are using it to create something that they wouldn’t be able to do without the technology. The tech should never replace the teacher — only supplement what the teacher is doing!
11) What advice would you give the next generation of math teachers?
Before you write or deliver any lesson, stop and ask yourself “Why should my students care about this.” If you can’t find a reason– keep looking until you do (and “Because it’s on the test” should never be a reason!). When you do have the reason, make it the first thing you tell the students!
For more about Alex, visit www.alexkajitani.com.
Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.