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Coffee Break: Valerie Camille Jones on Coffeehouse Math, Our Numbers Complex, and ‘Hidden Figures’

Coffee Break: Valerie Camille Jones on Coffeehouse Math, Our Numbers Complex, and ‘Hidden Figures’_5fbebd0cd3293.jpeg
Atlanta Atlanta Public Schools Better Conversation Coding Coffee Break Math Michael Vaughn STEM Teach For America teacher appreciation Teacher Appreciation Week Teacher of the Year Valerie Camille Jones

Coffee Break: Valerie Camille Jones on Coffeehouse Math, Our Numbers Complex, and ‘Hidden Figures’

Coffee Break: Valerie Camille Jones on Coffeehouse Math, Our Numbers Complex, and ‘Hidden Figures’

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and we’re a little late to the party in recognizing and appreciating Dr. Valerie Camille Jones, who was feted at the White House and hung out with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. But a Presidential Award winner for her work in teaching mathematics to middle schoolers in Atlanta certainly deserves some extended time in the spotlight.

I read in your Teach For America article that you like to get students out of the classroom to see math in action, like in a game of billiards. We’re partial to coffeehouses; can we pick up any math there?

Yes! Mathematics is an amazing subject because it can be used everywhere. Let’s say you wanted the coffee shop to make your perfect cup of coffee and luckily, you had the recipe. The barista will have to adjust how much coffee, milk and sugar to include into desirable proportions. Conversions may need to be used between cups, tablespoons and teaspoons.

One wrong percentage could cost you from drinking the best tasting cup of coffee to having the worst coffee experience of your life. Consumer mathematics is present at every coffee shop. It’s so important that you use mathematics to calculate discounts or determine better deals on the products you may purchase. This question is giving me great ideas for a new math lesson and location!

What is it about us Americans being somewhat boastful about being “bad at math?” Any signs that we’re getting better, both at wanting to be good at it and actually being good at it?

I desperately wish Americans would change their mindset surrounding negative feelings about mathematics. Currently, there is a national campaign called With + Math= I Can that is trying to change the narrative. They are creating videos, lessons plans, Twitter chats and workshops to support a growth mindset in and out of the math classroom. Amazon Education, Common Sense Education, Edutopia, Teaching Channel and Stanford University are all working together to create these resources.

During my time at the 2015 White House Science Fair, I was able to participate in a roundtable discussion with Vice President Joe Biden where students conferred on ways to get more people, especially women and minorities, interested in mathematics. They mentioned the importance of organizations like Girls Who Code and other STEM programs to spark more love in mathematical fields. I hope that movements like these help to transform the math mindset.

Talk about your own background and education.

I was born in Naperville, Illinois, but later traveled to Atlanta where I received my bachelor of science degree in mathematics from Spelman College. I then taught high school mathematics for seven years in the Atlanta Public Schools system, where I was recognized as Teacher of the Year in 2005 and 2006. I graduated from Georgia State University with a masters in mathematics education in 2003 and obtained my National Board Certification in young adult mathematics. While earning my doctorate of education degree in mathematics from Teachers College Columbia University, I worked as an elementary math coach. For the past five years, I’ve been teaching at Ron Clark Academy middle school in Atlanta.

What drew you to becoming a math teacher?

My decision to teach was primarily fueled by my love of mathematics and desire to provide young people with the quality skills and analytical abilities that they could use in a future field or endeavor. It’s my goal to help students develop higher-order, analytical thinking abilities, with a style that is both effective and fun, and dispel the fear that is commonly associated with mathematics.

I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since my junior year of high school. I was lucky enough to be able to take a high-school course called “Teaching,” where students partnered with teachers at our local elementary school. My excitement for teaching was first sparked through this course.

I remember math class as a lot of sitting quietly, listening to lectures and trying to decipher and memorize formulas. How much has that changed and why is the change needed?

Today’s students are visually-inclined, dynamic learners, who need a great deal of extrinsic motivation. I provide my students with meaningful and relevant life applications to the mathematical concepts that I teach. My goal is to ignite my students’ curiosity to discover mathematics through their interests and apply their mathematical knowledge to the world outside of school.

I believe that providing these types of connections helps students retain information. I’ve also found that this type of instruction provides students with greater accountability and pride in their own work. I encourage my students to speak mathematically and challenge whatever conjectures I propose. I want them to know that they should not be afraid to stand up for their convictions and defend their mathematical logic. I instruct in an enthusiastic manner knowing that if I am motivated about the topic, students will also be excited about learning.

We’ve had quite a few “math as hero” movies in recent years. Do you have a favorite?

I’m very excited about an upcoming movie that’s currently being filmed in Atlanta. It’s based on the story of black women mathematicians who worked for NASA during the space race and is based on a book called Hidden Figures.

The movie tells the stories of the African-American women mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley. These women worked at NASA during the civil rights era and were referred to as the “colored computers.”

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