Diana Kaplan: Embracing your inner 'Mathtype"

Connections: Winter 2010-11 -- “A math teacher as the luncheon speaker for the Autumn Interlude fund-raiser?” Some were intrigued; other incredulous. But a few minutes into Diana Kaplan’s talk, everyone was fascinated by this math teacher’s story, told with passion and humor.
Connections: Winter 2010-11 -- “A math teacher as the luncheon speaker for the Autumn Interlude fund-raiser?” Some were intrigued; other incredulous. But a few minutes into Diana Kaplan’s talk, everyone was fascinated by this math teacher’s story, told with passion and humor.
The Hackley community knows Diana Kaplan as beloved math teacher and Chair of the Mathematics Department. But Diana did not think of herself as a “math type” in high school. “I did well in math,” she acknowledged, “but other subjects came more naturally to me.” Ironically, things began to change for Diana her senior year of high school, when she chose to take AB Calculus rather than the more challenging BC Calculus. Her teacher that year, Mrs. Flanagan, was the first woman teacher Diana had ever had for any math or science course. For the first time, it occurred to Diana that math could be a real option for her.
At Hamilton College, Diana took a wide range of liberal arts courses and thought she might major in Ancient Civilizations, but took some advanced math classes as well. “In college, I really started to enjoy the way math stretched my brain,” she remembered. When it was time to declare a major, Diana teetered between what people often consider polar opposites: English and Math. English came more easily to Diana, and seemed the more natural choice, but a wise academic advisor encouraged her to choose the more challenging path, and Diana took the plunge into math -- and loved it. After college, Diana went on to obtain a Masters degree in mathematics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
What do you do after a Masters in math? Diana considered going on to obtain a PhD, but when she looked at the reclusive lives of math department PhD students, she recognized that such an intense devotion to mathematics alone was not for her. Instead, Diana came to Hackley, where for the past nineteen years she has been able to combine her love of mathematics with her love of her students.
Diana’s own story has shaped her approach to teaching math and growing a mathematics department. Just as Diana was inspired by Mrs. Flanagan’s example, Hackley’s girls are exposed to math-loving role models in every division. “I am very proud that at Hackley we have so many women teaching math and showing our girls that this is a very real option for them,” Diana told her audience. Talk to the many girls who succeed in advanced math classes at Hackley, and you will hear their appreciation of these women.
The fact that Diana herself was not a “math whiz” in high school gives her sympathy for students who lack confidence in their math ability. In recent years she has made a serious study of “math anxiety” and how to help students surmount it. But she also knows how to inspire it! To make her message personal, Diana required the luncheon attendees -- many who had not taken a math course since their own high school days -- to do a series of math problems. The mere suggestion started a murmur of anxiety. The first ten problems put us at ease with simple addition; there were sighs of relief. Then things got serious. Heart rates accelerated, sighs were heard across the room, and pencils were discreetly set down as parents fell by the wayside This, Diana reminded us, is what our students face every day: the demand to perform complex tasks in a short time, with the added pressure of being graded.
How can teachers alleviate math anxiety? First, Diana explained, Hackley’s teachers work at presenting students with real explanations of math concepts, so that the students can rely on understanding rather than memorization.
More subtly perhaps, Diana wants her math department to combat two myths that contribute to math anxiety. The first myth: If you can’t solve a problem right away, you are not good at math. “This myth,” acknowledged Diana, “is unwittingly promoted by good teachers. When teachers demonstrate math, it’s usually done perfectly the first time.” Math class, she pointed out, often looks like a cooking show. The chef adds a cup of chopped onion to a recipe, neatly and simply, no mess. In reality, adding a cup of chopped onion involves chopping, crying, scraps on the floor, peel all over the counter. Math, too, is often messy. “For many students,” Diana said, “if they can’t see the answer when they start, the task seems daunting. We need to encourage children to take risks and create math classrooms that reward those efforts.”
The second myth: Some people can do math, and some can’t. Not true, says Diana. She recently read Mindset by Carol Dweck, and was intrigued by the implications for math teaching. Dweck hypothesizes that people approach subjects with one of two different mindsets: those with a fixed mindset view their abilities as immutable, while those with a growth mindset see their abilities as fluid, changeable. Diana described Dweck’s study of one hundred 7th graders, who were randomly assigned to one of two workshops. One group was given a basic study skills class, and the other a mini-neuroscience class, in which the students learned how the brain forms new connections as we learn. By the end of a semester, the students in the neuroscience class had significantly better math grades than those in the study skills class.
“I give my students a similar speech all the time,” concluded Diana. “The brain needs to be exercised. . . . It grows stronger with use, just like a muscle.” Parents and students who want some extra brain exercise can go to the HPA page of Hackley Online Community to find a list of math websites suggested by Diana.
Is Diana’s passion for math contagious? Ask her husband, Chuck Petersen. When he met Diana, Chuck was working as an athletic trainer at Hackley. “After we had been dating for a couple of years,” Diana recalls, “he decided to go back to school to get a degree in education, with a focus on math, science, and technology. From hanging around me and other members of the math department, he rekindled his interest in mathematics.” Chuck is now the head of the mathematics department at Sacred Heart, Greenwich. Hang around Diana Kaplan, and there’s no telling what will happen!
-- Ann Brooks