Not long ago we introduced you to a group of very special young people, the winners of DIRECTV’s first-ever Math Achievement Awards. Each of them had spent twelve months as City Year Corps Members, serving as tutors and mentors to struggling students in high-poverty communities.
What really got our attention was the outstanding impact these folks had as math tutors. So we decided to take a closer look.
With that, we give you Kayla Webb (right).
Kayla, tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to become a City Year Corps Member.
I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. My parents emphasized the importance of education early and often in our household. I remember my younger brother and I playing those JumpStart educational computer games before playing video games. My mother is a high school English teacher so I was blessed with an incredible in-home asset. After high school, I attended Washington University in St. Louis where I studied Psychology and Children’s Studies. During my senior year I decided to forgo my original plan of applying to graduate school immediately after undergraduate and applied to City Year instead. This decision came after realizing how influential my mentors had been in my academic success and wanting to be that mentor for others. I was blessed with different teachers, professors, and coaches throughout my academic career that not only showed interest in me as a student, but as a person. I feel compelled to invest in our youth in the same way my elders invested in me.
What can you tell us about the school where you served?
I was very fortunate to serve in UCLA-Community School during the 2013-2014 school year. UCLA-CS is housed in the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools located in Koreatown. My classroom was a blended class comprised of 4th and 5th grade students. The culture and community of the school were extremely welcoming and proved to be a great atmosphere in which students could learn.
What were the highlights and notable challenges you faced as a tutor and mentor at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools?
I found the students to be overwhelmingly receptive of my support, much to my delight. I was able to connect with my students on a personal level despite being an outsider in their community. I was welcomed and embraced with open arms and the relationships I developed with students and staff impacted me just as much, if not more, than my students.
What’s your history with math? Have the concepts always come easily to you, or did you struggle with the subject? Did you have a great math teacher or mentor in your past that influenced your ability to inspire math achievement?
Math is a subject that has always made a lot of sense to me. I didn’t struggle with any concepts until I reached Calculus my senior year of high school. Fortunately, my math teacher, Mr. Spitz, was excellent and he taught my classmates and me a valuable lesson: it’s about the process, not just getting the right answer. Until this point, math was a simple input/output process. He encouraged us to struggle through concepts and processes with the focus on understanding the mechanics instead of a correct final product. He took the sting out of “failure” and cultivated a sense of growing and developing in our skills.
What math concept/unit was the most challenging for your students to grasp?
My class spent a great deal of time with fractions and decimals. I noticed that some of my students were struggling with the concept of how many parts make up a whole and tended to group by 10s regardless of the denominator of the fraction (e.g. 10/5 = 1 whole as opposed to 5/5).
How did you work with them to develop an understanding of it?
Once I noticed this, I developed a visual representation of wholes and parts of wholes: fraction pizzas! I explained to my students that the denominator of a fraction determined how many slices the pizza should have and the numerator determined how many slices had been eaten. With a dry erase marker, students were able to divide the pizza into the appropriate amount of slices and visually see that 10 slices didn’t always make up a whole pizza.
Please share your favorite math-related anecdote from your time with City Year. For example, was there one student that really struggled to grasp a math concept that finally had an “a-ha!” moment? Did you use a creative method to get them there?
A few of my students were struggling with place values especially when working with decimals and knowing how to correctly name these numbers. For example, if the number 35.67 were written on the board, students would say “thirty-five ‘point/dot sixty-seven” instead of “thirty-five and sixty-seven hundredths.” My partner teacher and I developed a dice game to give students more practice with place values and naming them correctly. Students played head-to-head and each began with __ __ . __ on a dry erase board. Each student took turns rolling a die and placing the number they rolled in a blank space of their choice. When placing the number in the blank space they had to name it as well, so that if a student rolled a 6, depending on which space they chose, they either had to say “6 tens”, “6 ones”, or “6 tenths.” The student with the greatest overall number at the end of three rolls was deemed the winner. Once they mastered this version of the game, I began adding spaces and moving the decimal point within the number to increase the difficulty. My students really enjoyed this game and even wanted to make it into a tournament! It was great to see them having fun and mastering a concept at the same time.
What advice do you have for teachers, mentors and other City Year Corps Members that work with students who struggle with math?
My advice is to emphasize that there are multiple ways to arrive at a correct solution and encourage students to come up with a strategy that works best for them. One thing my partner teacher really emphasized was the sharing of strategies among the students, and students teaching each other different ways to solve the same problem. I found that this increases their problem solving skills and understanding of the concepts.
DIRECTV is committed to supporting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning at K-12 schools, with a strong focus on math as the foundation for organized thinking and problem-solving. What are your thoughts on the importance of STEM subjects, and especially math, for today’s students and their futures?
The problem solving and technical skills one acquires through exposure to STEM subjects can be applied to all aspects of life and learning. With the increasingly competitive job market and global economy, it’s important that our students are prepared for success in today’s society. The way in which math concepts build upon one another emphasizes the importance of refining practices and scaffolded learning. We should all strive to be life-long learners, and these skills help to build that foundation in our students.
And what about your future? What are your plans?
I am currently still serving with City Year as a Team Leader at Santee Education Complex. I plan to apply to the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Southern California. Serving others brings me so much joy and dedicating my life to advocating for and uplifting others only seems natural.
—Stephen Vincent D’Emidio
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