Episode #41 – Math Gals: An Interview With Chrissy Newell

Sep 9, 2019 | Podcast | 1 comment


You’re listening to Chrissy Newell, a math projects coordinator from California who has been leading the #MathGals movement. We chat with Chrissy about how we can raise awareness to underrepresented women in the field of mathematics and also what we can do to empower girls in math class so they can thrive while they have a sense of belonging. 

Stick around while Chrissy shares three action items for you to implement in your classroom! 

You’ll Learn

  • What is the #mathgals movement? 
  • How we can raise awareness & celebrate the achievements of women in math. 
  • 3 “Get Started Tips” to help make a difference.
  • Where you can land your #mathgals shirt.
  • All about TableTalkMath Summer Courses.


Download a PDF version | Listen, read, export in our reader


Chrissy Newell: … so it’s back to that idea of belonging. If we keep being shocked when girls and women succeed in mathematics fields and really persist in mathematics fields, then it’s never going to really feel like they belong. It can’t always be a shock. I can’t wait for the time when we can just say like, “Oh, so this engineer.” And the question really comes up like, “Oh, is it a man or a woman?” I want that to be, instead of us just defaulting to assuming it’s a man [crosstalk 00:00:23]-

Kyle Pearce: You’re listening to Chrissy Newell, a math project coordinator from California who has been leading the #MathGals movement.

Jon Orr: We chat with Chrissy about how we can raise awareness to underrepresented women in the field of mathematics, and also what we can do to empower girls in math class so that they thrive while they have a sense of belonging.

Kyle Pearce: Stick around while Chrissy shares three action items for you to implement in your classroom. Hit it.

Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. I’m Kyle Pearce from tapintoteenminds.com.

Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr from mrorr-isageek.com. We are two math teachers who together…

Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of educators worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark engagement…

Jon Orr: Fuel learning…

Kyle Pearce: And ignite teacher action. Are you ready to get started, Jon?

Jon Orr: Of course, Kyle. We are honored to have had the opportunity to chat with Chrissy, and we appreciate that you, yeah you, the one listening to this right now have also taken the time in your day to listen.

Kyle Pearce: Have you shared some of your feedback on iTunes yet? Go ahead. Take a moment, tap that subscribe button, and spend a minute letting us know how you’re enjoying the show, like Miss [Graul 00:01:53] whose review says, “Actionable ideas. Kyle and Jon provide an actionable synthesis of all the stuff floating around in my head after years of reading about being the teacher I want to be. This podcast makes the tough work of revolutionizing math class feel a whole lot less lonely.”

Jon Orr: Thanks to Miss Graul for leaving this five star review on iTunes. If you want to leave a five star review on iTunes, maybe we will read yours on air next time. Before we get to our discussion with Chrissy, we want to let you know that if you’re listening to this before September 27th 2019, then you’re cutting it close to joining us for our 16 week full online workshop.

Kyle Pearce: Our online workshop is designed to walk you through step by step to help you teach through real-world problems and create those resilient problem solvers you’re after. If you’re interested in learning more about registering, be sure to check out makemathmoments.com/onlineworkshop. If you’re listening after the fall 2019 registration closing date, you can still head to makemathmoments.com/onlineworkshop to join the waiting list in order to be notified for the next opportunity to participate.

Jon Orr: That’s makemathmoments.com/onlineworkshop.

Kyle Pearce: Let’s not hold up the great discussion any longer. Here’s our chat with Chrissy.

Jon Orr: Hey there, Chrissy. Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. We are so excited to have you on the show today. How are you doing this lovely evening?

Chrissy Newell: I am doing well. Thank you so much for having me.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome, awesome. You are coming to us all the way from the other side of the continent from California, but do us a favor and help our audience understand a little bit more about yourself. I know many people are probably familiar from some of your work on Twitter, and some other things that you do in presenting math through professional development and at conferences, however, for those who don’t know, give us a little bit of your backstory. How did you get into this math teaching gig?

Chrissy Newell: Sure. Well I actually started as a dance teacher. This is little known facts.

Kyle Pearce: Wow. Whoo.

Chrissy Newell: I grew up as a dancer and started really early on as an assistant in ballet and tap and jazz, all classical dance styles, and then once I was in college and a little bit after college was teaching dance, and realized how much I loved teaching in a studio, and it felt like maybe I should pursue teaching in a classroom.

So I started my credential at Cal State Long Beach, which is in California, Southern California, and really fell in love with teaching. I spent much of the year in a first grade classroom, and really felt like that was where I was meant to be, with the little guys. Right? And loved it. And then moved up into the Central Valley where my husband is from to finish my credential, and got placed in sixth grade. [inaudible 00:04:55] teaching.

So that was a little bit of a shock when I got my placement, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know about this.” And then ended up just loving it, loving every minute of it, and then ended up teaching grade five and grade six for eight years.

So I was a self-contained classroom teacher. Taught all subjects, and I always had a really positive relationship with math, which isn’t the story for many people, but in my last couple years of classroom teaching I had the opportunity to attend some really wonderful professional development through the County Office of Education, and got to know the math director, and at some point she said, “We’re growing our team, and would you be interested in applying for this role?” And I found myself being invited to join their team as a math specialist at the county, so I’ve been doing that for five years, just specializing in math.

So that’s kind of where I am in my career, and I miss being in my own classroom very much, but I have the privilege of being in many classrooms, so lots of students, lots of teachers, lots of administrators, so I feel like I’m still using my teaching chops in what I do now for sure.

Jon Orr: That sounds like quite the journey there too, and a nice role that you’re in now. Chrissy, we ask this question to every guest we have on this show, and I think you probably know what’s coming. We want to know if you think back to… You just said you had some positive experiences growing up with math, so this could be a memorable moment from then, but it also could be a memorable moment from your teaching life too. So we just want to know what would be your most memorable moment when we mention the word math class.

Chrissy Newell: Oh my gosh. Well I think probably as a teacher is my most memorable moment. So just at the beginning of our transition here in the US to the Common Core Standards, which has been quite a while now, even though we still somehow hear them are called, like referred to as the new standards. It’s like, well no, they’ve been around for a while. Welcome. But in that first year of transition when we were really just trying on this new idea of, “Hmm, teaching conceptually.” Right? I had this big group of district administrators come visit my classroom, and I knew they were coming, and I was terrified, but I decided I was going to get fraction tiles out for the first time with fifth graders. That’s a really good idea. Right? Like the first time-

Kyle Pearce: That’s a brave idea. I think that’s great.

Jon Orr: Great. Yeah, I was going to say, like the first time you get these things out and you got guests coming.

Chrissy Newell: Yeah. I mean I figured it’s either going to go really well or really poorly, and so let’s just go all-in. And actually no, it wasn’t fifth grade, it was sixth grade, and so we had fraction tiles out, and my students were sitting in groups, so like four desks all together, and I had given them more than one set of fraction tiles, and I was asking them to build whole numbers greater than one with multiple sets of fraction tiles. And there were fraction tiles everywhere. Like just everywhere. So part of the reason it was so memorable is because I was terrified that something was going to… they were going to walk in and go, “Oh, this is just not going to work.”

The outcome was that my students were so engaged and so excited about fractions, which we don’t hear that often. Right? But they had fractions that… I tried, at some point I asked them to build the number 10 out of fourths or something, which is a ridiculous thing to ask kids to do with fraction tiles, but we were [inaudible 00:08:10] and they were on the floor building like… It was amazing.

And this team walked in, and they stood at the back of the room, and slowly started dispersing themselves amongst the groups to talk to the kids. Right? Because when they walked in they were like, “What is happening? Math on the floor. What is going on?”

Kyle Pearce: Kids are talking.

Chrissy Newell: Yeah. “The kids are talking. This is chaos.” But they realized that they were making sense of fractions, and they asked kids how they were using the tools, and I had done very little introduction to this tool even, and the kids were doing an amazing job. And I just remember feeling so proud of my students for being in the math, and a little bit relieved that it went well, and that experience actually is something that my principal continued to bring up for years. Like, “I remember the time I walked in your classroom and kids were building with fraction tiles on the floor, and how powerful that was.”

Kyle Pearce: Well that’s so awesome, because you often hear of let’s say a group of, whether it’s other teachers or maybe it’s administrators or superintendents are coming through to do a walk-through in your building, and often times it’s sort of like people dust off sort of their best lesson. Right? It’s like my perfect lesson, or it’s a topic that was already taught two weeks ago, and it’s like, “All right, I’ll find an activity, and the kids are going to be rocking it because we’ve already learned this concept, so we’re really just diving into it and sort of reviewing it.” So it’s like a really low-stakes situation in that case, and yet you went the other end of the spectrum and said, “You know what? Let’s see what we can do with these.”

To just have the confidence and the willingness to not allow that to shake you I think is a testament obviously to what’s going on in your classroom on a daily basis, and obviously for you to have that trust in your students and for them to have that trust in you, I think that’s really awesome.

Chrissy Newell: Yeah, and teaching sixth grade is not for everyone, and I, especially coming out of a first grade classroom thinking that was my calling to be put into sixth grade where I think I just really enjoy… I don’t want to say they’re real people, as if first graders aren’t. That’s a horrible thing to say. But sixth grader, you can relate to them on a different level. Right? It was really a memorable year in general. It was a really remarkable class, so yeah. It’s a great memory.

Kyle Pearce: That’s an awesome memory, and I’d love to dive in a little deeper in terms of, so that’s a memory from the first year that Common Core came out, and I’m wondering, what was that transition like for you? And I know for some people like you already said there’s some people that are still sort of looking at it.

Jon and I have joked around before there when we talk about assessment, we have a document in Ontario called Growing Success, and we often hear teachers say like it’s this new document, and that was 2010, right, when that document came out, and it’s actually policy. It’s assessment policy here. So similar to the Common Core it’s not like a, “Hey, we’re going to dabble with this idea.” How was that transition for you, and maybe were you already on a little bit of that path, and that just sort of dovetailed nicely, or was that just something that you just sort of took the bull by the horns and just were committed to trying to unpack what it’s all about and to do your best to try to access the math that way?

Chrissy Newell: Yeah. So actually the year before, so 2009, the year when these rumors of these standards started coming down, and really like 2008, 2009, I was actually working on my master’s degree in teaching and learning. And so I had an opportunity to choose an emphasis for my own professional learning, and I chose Common Core.

I decided I was going to make sort of a MOOC. Right? This massive open online course sort of format for my thesis that was sort of a Common Core for dummies. Right? And I was the dummy. That was my approach. I’m going to find out everything I can, and this is going to be my project, and this is going to be my learning.

So I dove in. Really it was sort of an excuse to get to know more about it, and so I found every resource I possibly could. I’ll have to drum up that website. I haven’t seen it in a while to be honest. So yeah, I used my own learning as an excuse to dive in. And for me as a teacher, it looked a little bit like dabbling behind closed doors for a little while, because I was working for a district that was very supportive of teachers trying things in classrooms and sort of reporting back, and we did have a pacing calendar at the time, and a curriculum that really wasn’t built for this type of learning or standards.

But I did a lot of dabbling with things like a lecture of mathematics tasks, and it was the first year that Engage New York the curriculum came out, and that was very new and looked very different. And then eventually I ended up looking at a lot of Ontario’s resources, because it seems like y’all have been doing this for longer than we have it seems. And I still actually use a lot of Ontario’s resources in my math methods course for my own students as they’re learning to be elementary teachers.

But yeah, those first couple years were full of a lot of experimentation, and all I knew is that it felt really good as a teacher that students were making sense of math, and sort of the first evidence I had that was convincing for my peers and administrators were test scores, which, that’s not at all why we teach. Right? We don’t teach to the test. In the transition though, that felt like compelling evidence to my peers.

So I was able to say at the beginning of the year I had 10 of my 28 students were near proficiency, and at the end of the year exiting, 19 of them were near proficiency, and so that was compelling evidence to them, and that’s when I started having more interest. More teachers were interested. Like, “What is it that you’re doing? What are you trying?” And that’s sort of where I started sort of developing my passion for professional development a little bit, for teaching adults, and I’ve always been really fortunate to work with really great collaborative grade level teams. But because of my experimentation and dabbling, and my knowledge, even though it wasn’t really robust, it was a little bit more than most of the people around me, and so it gave me an opportunity to be sort of an instructional leader, which I think really lead to my position that I’m currently in now.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, I actually wrote that down on my end just listening to your conversation and how you mentioned really the Common Core for dummies sort of community, that you had put together an online course that you had put together, and even when you said, “I was the dummy.” And I know that you’re being probably a little bit harsh there, but at the end of the day, when you go into a scenario like that and you are openly sharing with people that you’re not the expert, that you’re coming in to learn with people and really modeling what great coaching and mentorship is all about, you’re being the lead learner in that group. Not the lead teller, or the lead instructor, or the lead teacher.

And in my mind I’m just picturing like if you did that work before that first year of Common Core, just being curious, trying to bring others on board to start those conversations, I’m picturing that that’s like clear foreshadowing to you heading down this path that you’re currently on. Right? Into the role as a coach and instructional leader, so awesome stuff. Kudos to you. Jon wants to lead us into another question here. So we’ve talked about a few successes here. Jon, what are you curious about now?

Jon Orr: I’m always curious about, and want to ask teachers this question about challenges. Like, what is a challenge you’ve had recently, or it doesn’t have to be quite recent, but it could be in your teaching experience. And basically, what’s a challenge that you had, and then how did you address it, or how did you overcome it, or how are you still attempting to try to overcome it? Like, what’s challenging you these days?

Chrissy Newell: Oh, what’s challenging me? I think in the last couple years in my role as a professional development provider we’ve really seen a shift in what teachers and districts, administrators in general are asking for in terms of professional development, and my first few years in this role I did a lot of stand and deliver.

“We’re going to do a workshop on fractions. Come one come all. We’re going to focus on a couple grade levels, but we’re going to do some hands-on math, and I’m going to see you for a couple days, and then good luck, see you later, go back to your classroom and try this. I may or may not interact with you again ever, really.”

And research tells us that’s maybe not the best way for a teacher to learn, and so as that has sort of emerged for us as a team and started to sink in for us, I think a challenge has been shifting the way we do business. And we’re seeing so much more power in the classroom embedded district-specific work that we’ve been able to do the last couple years, and really that’s going to be a majority of our work coming through.

But it continues to be a challenge. Just feels very different facilitating maybe a small group of grade level teachers versus a room of between 30 and 100 people, which I feel like that was where my comfort level was. I really enjoy presenting to large audiences, and it’s a lot more intimate to sit down with a grade level team and really get down to the business of what’s going well, and what’s maybe not going well, and how are we going to come up with an idea that we want to try in the classroom, and how can I support you in that?

So it’s an exciting challenge. It has really pushed me as a facilitator and as a kind of math specialist. That idea that I’m a specialist or an expert. Those words really sort of suggest that I know what I’m doing at all times, and we know that’s not the case at all. So I really try to be transparent with my teams about where my learning currently is. And if they’re experiencing something that I don’t have some expertise in, we talk about how we’re going to pursue the learning together.

And it’s been a challenge, but it’s been really, really rewarding. And one of the things that I feel like it has given me is a much closer relationship with the teachers that I support. Being out of the classroom, you miss having that relationship with your class. Even if I see students and I’m in classrooms, I don’t have that sustained relationship, and through this kind of new approach we’re really developing deeper relationships with teachers, and we’re able to support them in their own classroom where they are. And I hope that continues to be the way that we provide most of our professional development.

But yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard work, and it’s sometimes emotionally taxing as well as intellectually taxing, and I know it’s been a good day when I come home at 5:30, six o’clock and I’m like, “I just need a nap.” Like, “I just need to lay down. I’m exhausted.”

Jon Orr: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. You know what? I’m sure Kyle’s got lots of things to add, as that’s his role too. And I’m on the other end of that. I’m the classroom teacher, and I know from experience in our [inaudible 00:19:09] our math specialist in our district, he’s probably gone to great lengths trying to do the same as you in the sense of make that name like a misnomer. Like this is not the title that, like the name of the title is misleading in the sense that I’m not the knower of all things, but I am the coordinator maybe is a better name to say that I’m here to provide support, or a supporter.

And we’ve tried lots of different things. We echo the same kind of path that you’ve just outlined. Like we had big group meetings regularly each year, and then we went off and did our own thing and nothing really changed, and it’s only been the last few years where we’ve started to do small groups within our own schools, and then we’ve started to pair school to school. So we’ve met with other schools to, you know, the math department from this high school meets with the math department from that high school, and the coordinator is there, and we kind of co-plan lessons, and it’s been a very rewarding experience these last four years being smaller groups than bigger groups.

So yeah, I echo the same kind of success, but also challenges, because not everybody wants to be there. Especially high school. High school teachers tend to not or resist more so in our experience of presenting workshops, high school teachers seem to be the ones that are the most challenging to try to get them to enact any sort of change or try something new. So that’s always a challenge for us on our end.

Kyle do you have any… do you want to throw your two cents into this line of topic here?

Kyle Pearce: You both nailed it, and I totally can relate to the whole getting home, and I find the smaller the group the more exhausting it is. Right? Where you have been doing your back and forth conversation. The entire time you’re… It’s not scripted. Like that’s the one, I guess the easier part of presenting to a large group is that you know pretty much what you’re going to do. I always try to adjust as I go based on what I’m hearing from the table talk at the tables, but within reason it’s not like you’re thinking on your feet nearly as much as you are when you’re having a small group conversation with let’s say five or six teachers at a table.

And sometimes you really have to do a lot of thinking, even sometimes while you’re speaking. Right? Because you’re constantly thinking of what you’re saying, and you’re sensing the tone of people’s voices, and how are people’s beliefs here? Especially if it’s maybe a newer group. Like are the beliefs sort of productive beliefs here, or do we need to spend more time there? And you’re really kind of taking a temperature, I guess, throughout the conversation. Trying to figure out, “Okay, where’s the best place that we should head or send this conversation to?” So I could definitely relate.

But as I’m looking at the time, I want to start shifting the gears here, because we wanted to talk to you about a few specific ideas, and one in particular was the topic of your Shadow Con talk this past year when we were at NCTM. We had the privilege of actually watching that talk, and you spoke about a, I’m going to call it like a movement that you’re calling Math Gals. So what we want to know for the audience, who are the Math Gals, and what is this initiative all about? Like why should all of us be thinking of them, and what is the message that you’re trying to send to everyone? Not just math teachers, but really everyone in the public eye.

Chrissy Newell: Right. So Math Gals started without a name, and my daughter and I… So my daughter is nine. She will be going into fifth grade. Last summer we were reading a book by Dr. Talithia Williams called Power in Numbers, and the subtitle of that book is The Rebel Women of Mathematics. And so I was looking on Amazon one day and saw the book, and thought, “Yeah, we need that book in our lives.” And so we started reading together and learning about these really remarkable women, few of which I as someone who works in mathematics exclusively had even heard of.

And so as we’re reading these stories, my daughter kind of turned to me and said, “Mom, why don’t more people know these stories?” And I said, “You know, that’s a really good question. Maybe there’s something we can do about that. Maybe we can help people share their stories.”

And so my daughter, she’s really into clothing design right now. That’s something she really is into. She loves to draw. She’s like, “Oh, I designed a shirt, and I designed this.” So she had the idea to design a shirt. And we started looking at designs, and decided that we could make a shirt just with names on it of women who had made a difference in mathematics throughout history as a way to sort of raise awareness of the fact that women have been doing math just as long as men have.

They’ve definitely been underrepresented in the field though, even today. Even through present times. And so we created these shirts for ourselves and ordered two shirts and wore them, and I posted a picture of my daughter on Twitter wearing it, and next thing I know I’m getting all these messages like, “Wait a second, that is awesome. Where did that come from?” And we named it.

So we said, “Well, these are the Math Gals.” Kind of #MathGals. And we really want to wear their names. Their first names specifically, because in our learning we found out that many women throughout history have had to use a male name publish under. And so we thought it was really important to have first names on the shirt.

It grew from there, and we’ve sold over a thousand shirts, which is insane. Like that was never our intent, but it has grown into a way for us to share this message that we want girls and women to know that they belong in mathematics, and that’s something that came up a lot in my research for my Shadow Con talk.

I started researching just about this idea of a mathematician. So what is a mathematician, and what’s the stereotype that people have of mathematicians? There’s some really interesting research there. But what ended up coming up over and over again was this idea of sense of belonging, and the importance of women and girls having a sense of belonging in mathematics. Because even in places where we’re seeing an increase in the number of girls and young women going into STEM or mathematics fields and majors, they’re dropping out at much higher rates than men are, and it’s because they don’t feel like they belong there. They’re being treated like they don’t belong.

And so that was really eye-opening to me, and as I shared it with my daughter, we ended up having some really great conversations about what does it mean to belong somewhere, and how do you feel in math class? Do you feel like you belong? So it’s something we’re continuing to learn about, and we have I think three or four versions of the shirt at this point, because there’s just no way we can get every woman’s name on a shirt yet. But as we continue to learn [crosstalk 00:25:56]

Jon Orr: That’d look good.

Chrissy Newell: Yeah, right? Like I feel like I’d have to put it in .2 font, and we’ll just put every name ever on it. Because we want the message to be that here’s women throughout history who have been career mathematicians, but just because you don’t pursue mathematics as a professional mathematician doesn’t make you any less of a mathematician if you are a person who does math sometimes.

So that has been sort of the trajectory, and we were just featured on… So Spreadshirt is the website where we decided to make the shirts, and they just featured the Math Gals shop as the shop of the month on the US blog. That was really-

Kyle Pearce: Congratulations. That’s amazing.

Chrissy Newell: Yeah. Thank you. And that’s an audience that is not just educators or self-purported math people, so it’s really funny, because one of Spreadshirt’s requirements for posting shirts for sale on their site is that it doesn’t have names on it.

So initially our design was rejected for posting because it had names on it, and so as I was starting to read like, “Why was this rejected?” Their kind of standards of quality, it was like, “Well it doesn’t appeal to an audience if you have just your names on it,” for example. And I can tell you that as we’ve worn these shirts, people ask, “What’s on your shirt?” The things people have guessed, oh my gosh.

I’ve gotten, “Oh, are you in a bridal party?” You know, “Are these the names of the bridesmaid?” I’m thinking like, “Yeah, Hypatia is a real popular name for a bride these days.” And we actually when we were at NCTM in San Diego, apparently our math conference overlapped with a doctors’ conference, and so we had several doctors making really interesting guesses.

Like, “Oh, well are those the names of women who have gone into the medical field?” Like they were really trying to figure this out. We had one, someone asked, “Are they the names of hurricanes?”

Kyle Pearce: Right.

Chrissy Newell: Because we name…

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, I suppose.

Chrissy Newell: Yeah. It’s opened so many conversations, and people in elevators. I’ll get in the elevator and they’ll out of the corner of their eye, I’ll notice that they’re reading my shirt, trying to figure it out. And so we just started putting the Math Gals hashtag on the shirt as well, so that people who maybe don’t want to ask a question but are interested can kind of pursue the knowledge on their own.

Jon Orr: It’s definitely a passion and a very big concern of mine lately. And I have three daughters, and they’re around the same age as your kids. Just thinking back to my classroom and the girls in my classroom, and not even just classrooms. Like I was just watching, tonight we were watching The Amazing Race, and we like that show because it’s action oriented and we get to see the world and that kind of stuff.

They had Olympic skiers on there, and even the Olympic skiers, they were trying to say the message was even girls can do these kinds of things, and I just felt like they’re even kind of saying almost down about themselves in that sense. Even though they’re Olympic medalists, they’re saying like, “Oh girls aren’t supposed to be Olympic medalists or action skiers, like jumping skiers.” And I’m like, “They even said it.” And so they’re trying to say the message that girls are these things, but it just came across kind of funny for me.

And this is such a huge topic to talk about, because I think there’s so much stereotyping about girls in math. And I even think about it in my classroom. Like I’ve got two different kind of classes. We have our academic stream class which are, I’m not sure what you guys call them in California, but these are the students that are on track to go to higher level universities and colleges, and then we have the kids that are probably going to either go to the workforce or maybe like a community college. They’re streamed so that…

I find like the kids in the higher academic, like the girls are very outspoken about their learning, and the boys are less so. I find that a lot lately in those higher academics, but it’s the middle track that the kids, like I find the boys are very outspoken about math, and those girls are very reluctant to even speak in those classes. And a long time ago I didn’t even realize that. I wasn’t even watching for that, and it’s only been the last few years where I’m like, “We have to make a big shift in what we’re doing in our classroom to bring their voices out and make them more on the playing field.” Because even they don’t believe themselves, and we have to start changing those mindsets. So your movement is definitely for sure on the right path.

Chrissy Newell: Well and I think that believing in yourself piece, depending on the age, that’s a hard sell. Even if teachers are being really intentional about their messages of belief in students, I think it’s really a challenge for us to convince students to believe in themselves.

And my daughter, she’s a very flexible math thinker. She’s had really great teachers, and she has been learning under our “new standards” since she was in kindergarten. She’s kind of one of the first cohorts of students who have been learning this way since she started school. And so she thinks very flexibly, but she’s very nervous under time pressure. It causes her a lot of anxiety.

And so I think about my daughter who is very high achieving, very flexible in her thinking, and she still doesn’t believe in herself because of some of the practices that maybe have happened in her classroom. And so we’ve had a lot of conversation about, like I said, belonging. Like, “You belong there, you do math, you do you. Right? And I want you to love math.” And so you know, her on International Women’s Day I told her, “You have to wear your Math Gals shirt. You have to tell everyone their stories.” And so I might be indoctrinating her a little bit, but I like to think that piece by piece, little by little, those messages for me and hopefully some continuing shift in the world around her at school will support that, because I want her to feel like she can pursue mathematics in any way she chooses.

Whether it’s right now, like I said, fashion design. I want her to recognize that there’s mathematics in that. I’m not just going to be good at it in spite of the fact that I’m a girl, because like you said, that message comes across a lot. Like, “Oh, this is amazing because there are women doing this.”

Jon Orr: Right, or you weren’t supposed to be here, and you’re kind of like, “Well yeah, you are supposed to be here.” You know?

Chrissy Newell: And then so it’s back to that idea of belonging. If we keep being shocked when girls and women succeed in mathematics fields and really persist in mathematics fields, then it’s never going to really feel like they belong. It can’t always be a shock. I can’t wait for the time when we can just say like, “Oh, so this engineer.” And the question really comes up like, “Oh, is it a man or a woman?” I want that to be, instead of us just defaulting to assuming it’s a man, getting to the point where we’re really like, “Oh, well who is that?” And I don’t know if you’ve heard the story of Dr. Katie Bouman that has been in the news lately. Does that name ring a bell?

Kyle Pearce: I believe so. Isn’t she an astrophysicist if I’m thinking of the right person?

Chrissy Newell: Well she’s a computer scientist who sort of fell into astrophysics, as one does. Right?

Kyle Pearce: Oh. She’s discovered the black hole?

Chrissy Newell: She didn’t discover the black hole, but she has worked on writing the algorithm.

Jon Orr: Right. To take the picture.

Chrissy Newell: Yeah, which allowed the coordination of all these satellites which had been taking these sort of micro-images to put together a coherent picture of the black hole, because they had to piece it together. And so she wrote the algorithm that helped sort of sift through the images that were coming in to make this image, like composite image.

Like, that’s amazing. That’s incredible. And even as that story was being shared of this picture of the black hole, there were still far less stories about the fact that Katie had been a lead on this, Dr. Bouman. You know really yeah, and it was her that really lead this charge, and she’s of course very humble and gives credit to all the people around her as well, but yeah. Women are doing really great things in math and computer science and science, and the least we can do is put their name on a t-shirt is my feeling.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And going back, I know Jon had mentioned even sort of like a little bit of disappointment it sounded like when you heard the Olympic athletes in the way they sort of said, “And girls can too.” Kind of just the way it came out. And actually it reminded me, recently I was at a meeting. It was about essentially monitoring, and I don’t want to give too many details of which meeting it was, but basically the conversation went into talking about data on the gender gap, or if there was a gender gap, and when we referenced some of the data in our district, we were happy to say that actually it was virtually non-existent over the past couple years. Like it was within only a couple percent.

And the part that I guess really hit us, and we didn’t push too hard on it because we didn’t want to cause any sort of commotion or anyone to get upset, but really right away the assumption was… Can you imagine what the assumption was on who had the couple point lead was? They were thinking the males had a couple points, and then the conversation immediately went to “How do we help build more STEAM opportunities and so forth to ensure that girls have these opportunities?” And what it actually turned out for that particular cohort, it was actually the girls who had the couple point advantage over the boys.

And those things right there, it’s like those are the little things that I think the initiative that you’re involved in here in raising awareness for #MathGirls is to try to get us to stop making these assumptions. Like to think that even though it’s only a couple percentage points, but why did the assumption have to be that it must have been the girls that were behind by a couple percentage points. You know?

And that really hit me, and it made me realize that there’s a lot of things that are very… like it’s unconscious. Like it’s built in based on our experiences, right? So the more positive experiences that we can have, and essentially you’re putting those positive experiences into the minds of people. Whether they’re consciously aware of it or unconsciously aware of it, that will overtime slowly start shifting things in the right direction. So kudos to you.

So my question I have, and maybe there’s some people thinking on the other end, and they’re thinking like, “How do I get started making a difference?” In their own context. In their own community. I mean, number one is obviously buying a Math Gals t-shirt I think is one way they can [inaudible 00:36:17] but do you have any other thoughts on what they might be able to do to maybe start kind of thinking about how they might be able to make a change in their own local school or community?

Chrissy Newell: Yeah, absolutely. I’m thinking about my calls to action that I was able to share for my Shadow Con talk, and I had a really great group of people participate in a followup course with me after Shadow Con, and we really zeroed in on kind of three things that we can do to continue to help grow this image of women as being part of the math conversation. And the first one was just to learn their story.

Learn about these women who have come before us, or who are doing great things now in the field, and not just learn about their story but tell their stories. And some of the greatest resources we have are picture books. We have phenomenal picture books available, and there are several online, and I actually have a curated list that I’d be happy to share of picture books that tell the story of really amazing women like Sophie Germain, and her story is one of my favorite, because she allegedly studied math in the dark because her parents decided that if they took away her candles she wouldn’t study math anymore, and this was during the French revolution. And so it’s a picture book about her story, but we can bring students into these conversations by just sharing stories, and so that’s kind of the first thing.

And the second thing is as teachers, pursuing the resources that are out there that help us be more intentional about the messages that girls are receiving in our math classes. And like I said earlier, telling girls that we believe in them isn’t enough, but it’s a start. So in the way that we teach and the way that we talk to girls in our class, we can send that message that they belong.

And something else that’s really interesting the kind of goes along those lines is we can as teachers sort of assess the state of the environment that our classroom is in, and by that I mean there’s some research that shows that math classrooms typically, just environmentally, tend to feature more male dominated even just decoration.

And so as you’re looking around your classroom and realizing, “Oh, I have posters of mathematicians and they’re all men. What are some things I can do to make the environment more welcoming?” And kind of doing an assessment of that is a place for us to start as well.

And then I think third just really intentionally designing opportunities for girls to do math together. And so one of my favorite things I talked about in my Shadow Con talk was the friend effect. And the friend effect is this, we see that girls report increased confidence and also enjoyment when they’re solving math problems with their friends.

So what kind of experiences can we design, whether it’s group work, whether it’s a club after school? But how can we get girls to do math together? There’s this stereotype that a lot of math is done in a very solitary way. Behind closed doors, by yourself. And I still think we have a long way to go when it comes to assessment in sort of building what we understand to be the way we do math, because I think in so many classrooms I see, even if there has been a shift to problem based mathematics, teaching and learning and collaboration, it’s like all of a sudden we take all that away when we give them a test.

Well it’s like, “You’ve been working collaboratively this whole time, now you’re taking a test you can’t talk to anyone. Don’t make eye contact.” And so how might we kind of turn that on its head knowing that girls really benefit from doing math, and all students I would say, but research is telling us especially girls benefit from doing math with their peers.

So some baby steps I think in that regard. I’ve had several really amazing tweeps, so friends on Twitter, who kind of ran with the message, and on May 12th which was the first international Women in Mathematics day, which is amazing. It’s Maryam Mirzakhani’s birthday. They actually put together school-wide events to honor women, and they through that together between April when they learned that this was going to be a thing, to May, and were able to share the message with their students and their families. So there are things we can do to spread the word and to show that this is on our radar.

Jon Orr: Those are some great action items for sure, and that, the first official Womens in Math day, that’s an amazing kind of accomplishment to put that together too and showcase that. So thanks so much for sharing those things. I think those are great starters and great things that we can all do to make this movement more widespread, for sure.

Let’s shift gears to something for parents who want to stay involved in math over the summer. We’ve seen, Chrissy, that you are involved with Table Talk Math with John Stevens, and you guys have been putting together a summer course, or a few summer courses for parents and kids I believe, and you’re doing one this summer. Do you want to talk about that and what it’s all about?

Chrissy Newell: Sure. So I guess in the fall John Stevens sent me a message, and the message was something like, “How do you feel about first grade and first grade math?” Very ominous, in-specific question. I was like-

Kyle Pearce: I’m not against it.

Chrissy Newell: … “I’m for it. What do you want to hear?” But then he said, “Hey, last summer I put together this course for incoming third graders in order to help support my son over the summer, and now I think I want to make it bigger.” And so John took this idea of some sustained learning over summer, and we now have a course from first grade. So first graders entering second grade all the way to fifth graders entering sixth grade, and he got together an amazing teaching team. I would love to teach with them in real life.

And we all took a grade level, and he asked us to develop a 12 lesson course that sort of revisited ideas from the previous year’s learning, and also previewed some of the learning they would be meeting in the next grade level, and with the intent that it was a little snippet of work. It wasn’t like a workbook you put in front of your kid in the summer. And he really let us run with it.

So each week or each lesson has a little video that sort of explains the activity or the task, and then some supporting documents that go with it, and I loved the opportunity to get to work on the first slash second grade course because I have a son who’s going to be moving into second grade, so we’ve been going through the course together.

Something that I think was really novel about this design that John created was that when people sign up for the course, every five days they get an email with the next lesson. And he did that on purpose because he referenced how sometimes as parents we have really good intentions. We’re like, “Okay, every day my kid’s going to do some math.” And sometimes that looks like, like I said, a workbook. Like, “Here, work through this workbook.” And it’s mind-numbing and sort of tapers off by the end of the summer.

And so his idea was to kind of slowly release these lessons to sustain that learning over the summer. And I had such a blast creating it. I decided to gear my videos towards the students, knowing that parents would be watching them with them to support them along the way, and each of us who worked on a course, and it was Brian Bushart who you may know from Twitter. Jenise Sexton, who’s wonderful, and Kaneka Turner, along with John.

We all kind of had some freedom to do our thing with our course, and I’m really proud of it, and I hope that… I think we have something crazy, like tens of thousands of students with access to the course this summer, because their school’s either purchased a license or got gifted a license, so it’s pretty incredible.

I was actually really excited that my own children’s school decided to offer Table Talk Math to all of their almost 750 elementary students over the summer. So I think it’s just a really great way for us to help parents support their students, and just keep math sort of slow trickling through the summer, but without a huge emphasis on like procedure, and…

I mean, I know over the summer I’ve heard teachers just tell parents, “Well if they just practice their math facts over the summer.”

Jon Orr: “Hit your fraction work down.”

Chrissy Newell: Yeah. Hopefully [inaudible 00:45:02] more engaging than that, but it’s been great.

Kyle Pearce: I was really excited to see, and actually for a while, I’m sure John will do it again next summer as well, but there was a period of time where you could actually go in and sort of have a look at the different courses, and I took some time to go and check things out, including one of the lessons that was open in your course, and it was awesome, and I brought it actually to my own district as an option, because we’re constantly trying to build that home-school connection, especially around mathematics.

And for us, it was just unfortunate the way things worked out. We had a lot of late budget decisions because we have a new government in the province, and there was a lot of budget cuts, and by the time we got all of our budget information, we didn’t have enough time to get it off the ground before students are heading out. So it’s definitely going to be something that we circle around to next year, and for those listening, John was very, very reasonable, and he worked with me to get district-wide pricing versus how could we do it for X number of students, so it was very flexible and responsive in that way, so it was clear to me that John and the other course creators are really passionate about making sure that the end goal is that students are building that love of math, but not just the love of math. Also benefiting from building their own understanding of mathematics so that they can be very confident mathematicians when they come back to school in August or September, depending on where you are.

So awesome stuff there. We’re wondering where can we find more. As we wrap this up, we’re looking at the time here, where can we find more about Chrissy Newell? Drop some social profile links, any other website links, anything you’d like to share with us, including definitely your Math Gals t-shirt, where they can find that again. I know you mentioned the company a little bit earlier, but let’s make sure it’s fresh in people’s minds, and we’ll also add those to the show notes for you.

Chrissy Newell: Well you can always find me on Twitter. My handle is @MrsNewell22. Fun fact, 22 was my classroom room number when I started my Twitter account, so that will forever be…

Kyle Pearce: Nice. Back in grade one?

Chrissy Newell: No, the was grade six. But that was [crosstalk 00:47:15]-

Kyle Pearce: All right, all right.

Chrissy Newell: … my Twitter account, so that will date me a little bit as I get farther and farther from the classroom, or like my own classroom anyway. So always on Twitter, and for Math Gals t-shirts we have a website, and if you just go to bitly/mathgals, all one word, you can peruse the options there, and we’re always adding more.

And again, it’s sort of turned into what we call unintentional side-hustle, if you will. And it’s always good to have one of those, and we never intended to make any money doing this. Now that we have as a result of everyone’s enthusiasm, what’s really exciting is we have been brainstorming ways to give all of this profit back. So we’ve been sending t-shirts out left and right to schools. We were able to send t-shirts to actually two separate entire classes of fifth graders, which was amazing. And the website is up, and every other week there’s a sale, so keep an eye out on that. I know they ship to Canada, though I have heard shipping takes a bit longer, so just plan ahead for that.

We’re also working on hopefully getting a website up and running where we can really share some more of these Math Gal stories, as well as the events that teachers and districts are holding to honor women in math. I’ve bought a domain name and there’s currently nothing there, but I have all sorts of good intentions and lots of support from the Twitterverse. So that’s a goal, and we hope the movement keeps growing, and we’re really honored and humbled that we were able to kind of kick it off the ground knowing that everyone around us is going to make it even better.

Jon Orr: Yeah. That’s fabulous. That, it will be awesome to look for. We’ll definitely include all of those in the show notes page, so if you’re listening stay tuned for that. Chrissy, I want to thank you so much for joining us here on to podcast. We know that we’ve gotten a lot out of this conversation, and I’m sure the people listening in on this also have, so thank you very much, and we hope that you enjoy the rest of your evening.

Chrissy Newell: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.

Jon Orr: Thank you. Have a great night. We’ll talk to you soon.

Chrissy Newell: You too.

Kyle Pearce: We want to think Chrissy again for spending some time with us this evening. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting Chrissy at some conferences in the past. So awesome to connect with her and allow her to share some of her great ideas around the Math Gals movement with you, the Math Moment Maker community.

Jon Orr: September 27th 2019 is coming up soon for you if you’re listening close to when this episode aired. That date is your last chance to register for our 16 week full online workshop.

Kyle Pearce: Our online workshop is designed to walk you through step by step to help you teach through real-world problems, and create those resilient problem solvers you’re after.

Jon Orr: If you’re interested in learning more about registering, be sure to check out makemathmoments.com/onlineworkshop. If you’re listening after the fall of 2019 registration closing date, you can still head to makemathmoments.com/onlineworkshop to join the waiting list in order to get notified for your next opportunity to participate.

Kyle Pearce: All right. Make sure you check it out at makemathmoments.com/onlineworkshop.

Jon Orr: In order to ensure you don’t miss out on new episodes as they come out each Monday morning, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast platform.

Kyle Pearce: Also if you’re liking what you’re hearing, please share the podcast with a colleague and help us reach an even wider audience by leaving us a review on iTunes and Tweeting us @MakeMathMoments on Twitter. Show notes and links to resources from this episode can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode41. That’s makemathmoments.com/episode41. Well until next time, I’m Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.

Jon Orr: And high fives for you.



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1 Comment

  1. John Vixie

    Re: Episode #41-Math Gals: An Interview with Chrissy Newell.
    I’ve been in several math workshops led by Chrissy Newell and she is the best presenter for math that I’ve ever had. Practical, useful, interesting, inspiring, and thinking. This was a great interview.


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