Making math enjoyable is ideal for driving learner engagement. I had a chance to speak with Federico Chialvo, who shares this passion and is on a mission to spark joy in mathematicians of all ages.

Briefly tell us about your career/experience in education. 

I knew I wanted to become a teacher by the time I finished high school, because as a Latinx immigrant, “English Language Learner” with ADHD and Dyslexia I had first hand experience about how hard it could be to navigate the school system, and I could point to a handful of teachers that made all the difference in me making it through my K-12 experience. I wanted to dedicate my life to making education work for those who, like me, weren’t being served equitably.

Over the past 20 years I have worked as an educator in a wide variety of environments, as a teacher in all grades K-12 and in public, private and international schools. Most recently, I served as the Director of Mathematics at Synapse School, a project-based K-8 independent school that integrates SEL throughout the curriculum, where I had the opportunity to build a math program focused on providing all kids with a rich and joyful experience of mathematics. 

I took the 2019-2020 school year off to be a “stay at home dad,” and found Joyful Mathematics in hopes of sharing math games and toys that spark joyful math moments. During that year, I also worked as a curriculum writer for Illustrative Mathematics. When the pandemic hit, I had to extend my time away from the classroom to tend to our children. However, last month I started a new job working as a Curriculum Designer at Dreambox Learning, which is an online platform that seeks to ”change the way the world learns by inspiring all students to think differently about math–and love it.”

How did you decide to dedicate your efforts to math? 

It’s hard to pinpoint how I decided to dedicate my efforts to math, because it feels like my whole life pointed to that choice. 

I had a tumultuous relationship with mathematics growing up. One minute I thought I was good at math and enjoyed it, and then I’d hit a wall and feel completely lost. My mathematical abilities were probably hidden or misunderstood in part due to being 2 grade levels below in reading and coping with ADHD. One year I’d be in remedial math classes, then in GATE, then back in regular math class, only to be put back into the accelerated track. I failed a semester of math in high school, only to take two courses the following year to make up for it. Meanwhile, my father, the biophysicist, would blow my mind at home or in his lab with conversations about fractals and chaos theory.

Despite all my struggles with math in school, I made it through to college with a hint of the beautiful structure that lay behind the cold and rigid way mathematics was taught.

I was lucky enough to take a few math classes in college that reaffirmed the joy and wonder inherent to mathematics. It was in diving into the deep well of pure mathematics that I discovered the profound beauty, creativity, and wonder mathematics had to offer. I was awarded an NSF undergraduate research grant for my research into a simple proof of the four-color theorem, and for a brief moment, I even considered becoming a research mathematician. 

Just as I was entering my senior year, I was offered the opportunity to design and teach a project-based seminar class at City High School. From the moment I saw a student’s mathematical identity flip from negative to positive, I was hooked. I felt like I could make an impact, by helping students foster a positive relationship with math. That’s been my main focus ever since!

Why is it important to learn math throughout education? 

On the one hand, mathematics is extremely useful because mathematical thinking helps us communicate, remix, and debate ideas. It also can be helpful in some lines of work or in general life. 

Math can enrich conversations about our world, whether you’re exploring science, social justice, or public policy. Also, math plays an important role in being an informed citizen that can think critically about data and information and act accordingly. 

My favorite reason, however, is merely because it is one of humanity’s most ancient art forms, and when we learn about the beautiful world of mathematics our lives are enhanced.

What is the most common misconception about math? 

There is a common misconception that mathematics is only about numbers, doing quick calculations, and there’s only one way to do it. 

On the contrary, mathematics has a beautiful web of ideas that are interrelated, it’s creative, and there are many different ways to do mathematics and shine through mathematics. Some of the most brilliant mathematicians are “slow” thinkers, visual thinkers, and divergent thinkers.

How do teachers create a joyful environment for math? 

Open up mathematics! Curate experiences that give students agency, let them tinker, make mistakes, fail and try again. 

Find ways to have your students be surprised by mathematics, to notice patterns and wonder how and why things work. 

Center student thinking by giving them the time to work through their thoughts, and creating a safe space to share ideas in their raw and sometimes incomplete forms. 

Expand the notion of what is considered mathematics. Puzzles and games can be a great way to spark joyful math moments, but so can learning a little bit of graph theory, topology, coding, etc.

What are some tools you use/have developed to engage learners in the math process? 

I love to curate a tool rich environment for students, anything that helps students play, tinker or create with mathematics.

Physical manipulatives have the power to disarm even the most math-averse students, and give them time to sit with concepts. For example, classic pattern blocks, which are actually surprisingly versatile, I’ve used them to explore mathematical concepts ranging from preK-12th grade. Omnifix cubes are such a treat, it’s like Minecraft you can hold in your hands. For learning place value, base-10 blocks, as well as alternate base blocks like base-2 and base 5. For those learning algebra, Lab Gear or Algebra Tiles are fantastic. 

My favorite digital tools are ones that increase student’s access to mathematical wonders. Some of my favorites include Desmos, Geogebra, Mathigon’s Polypad, Scratch, and of course Dreambox.

I’m also a big fan of the 3-Act Math lesson structure, and building in math talk routines into a daily practice, because they center students’ voices and thinking.

Finally, I believe game-based learning can play a big role in our learning experiences. I’ve used games like Catan and Set in my math classroom, and have even created dozens of games over the years to teach a variety of concepts. Recently I published a board game called MULTI, which helps students learn their multiplication facts as well as the structure of multiples and factors. MULTI was the culmination of a decade of playtesting with kids.

Is there anything else that you would like our audience to know about math (perspective, tips, tools, etc.)?

I’m on a mission to rebrand mathematics, in hopes of sparking joyful math moments and expanding the notion of who and what is mathematical. I believe mathematics has something for everyone to enjoy, and mathematics can gain something from everyone who engages with its beauty!

To learn more, visit our website joyfulmathematics.com or follow @joyfulmathematics on instagram. 

About Federico:

Federico Chialvo is a curriculum designer for Dreambox Learning and the founder of Joyful Mathematics. He holds a BS in Mathematics and a Masters in Education from the University of Arizona and has been an educator for 20 years as a teacher, administrator, coach, and curriculum designer. Federico specializes in designing authentic experiences of mathematics through project-based and problem-based curriculum and has a passion for developing games and toys that spark joyful math moments.

According to a University of Wisconsin study, parents of children with learning differences have stress levels comparable to combat veterans. 

Between the hours of therapy appointments, unpredictable behaviors, demanding jobs, and uncertain future, the stress compounds and takes a mental toll. Most parents focus on the child’s well being at the expense of their own. Sound familiar? Then this blog is for you!

We spoke to Jackie Chang, a Marriage & Family Therapist, who’s worked with families,  adults, adolescents, and children affected by Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, Depressive Disorders, and adjustment problems. 

According to Jackie, self-care for a parent is just as important as the focus on the child(ren). Parents who don’t practice self-care end up experiencing burnout and compromising their own health.  This leads to depression, anxiety, and physical ailments over time. It’s important to feel your best.

So how does a parent know if they’re not taking care of themselves?

  • Decreased tolerance levels for tantrums
  • Being more reactive, for example yelling at kids more than usual.
  • The feeling of going from 0-60 very quickly
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, more or less than usual
  • Changes in diet. Over or under eating.
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy

People need to be mindful of how stress affects them. It’s important to compare and contrast behaviors. If you sense that your current behavior has red-flags, compared to when you were at your best, then it’s time to pump the brakes, check-in with yourself, and re-evaluate what’s different. 

“I don’t need help!”

Parents, especially moms, feel the need to do it all and do it all ourselves. Admitting that you need help is not an easy step, but taking that step is key to your well-being. Parents have to be open to asking, and receiving, helps from each other, family, friends and not feel the need to do this all by themselves. 

“Isn’t it normal to go through up and downs, especially since I’m just learning about the diagnosis?”

While it is completely natural to have mood swings in the early stages of your child’s diagnosis it never hurts to seek out help.  If these feelings are persistent and affecting other parts of your life,  that’s a sign you may need to see a therapist.  

“I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the diagnosis. Everything seems very uncertain and that’s not great!”

A lot of parents get stuck on the label and tend to focus on the “deficit” and the negatives rather than their child’s strengths. Multiple IEP and parent meetings only seem to reinforce these thoughts since they mostly revolve around “what your child can’t do”.

In order to have a more balanced mindset, do your research. Understand what the diagnostic criterias are and be open minded about it. Reach out to other families or organizations that have a parent resource (eg. parents helping parents), monthly groups, autism speaks has resources. Meeting other parents going through the same experience will make it worth your while.

“My schedule is crazy, where do I even begin?”

Working parents and stay at home parents should use different tactics for get self-care.

Working parents lack of time and are constantly on the go. 

  • The feeling is that there aren’t enough hours or gaps to insert anything. Jackie’s recommendation is to schedule self-care and keep the commitment.
  • Take turns with your partner, or ask family members for help, so you can get some help with your self-care routine.

Stay-at-home parents often dedicate every single minute of their day to their child and end up isolating themselves and not prioritizing their needs. 

  • They can extend their self care by with being with others. Seek other stay-at-home parents and join a group. Get other people to participate so you keep one another accountable. It’s a moment for you to be with other adults and engage in adult activities, because the monotony of routine can lead to depression. One way to do this is joining an app called Meetup. 

“What advice do you have for couples parenting kid(s) on the spectrum?”

An ASD diagnosis adds stress to a marriage because it’s typically one parent dedicates themselves (the stressed out one) and the other person is the “side person.” While both parents need to divide the work, sometimes this is not possible because one parent may have to work. Coming together to delegate which parent will take on each task is very important, relieving stress on both parties when tasks are divided.

Take the time to be a couple and not just parents. 

Enjoy activities together and don’t be embarrassed to ask friends and family for help, or hire a babysitter and carve out that alone time to enjoy each other. Remember that before you were parents, you were a couple. It is still important to cultivate that relationship and show each other much-deserved attention.

“I’d like to get help, but can’t seem to find the right therapist for myself!”

The right therapist can be crucial for one’s well being. Do your research on the types of therapy available and find a therapist who will be a good fit for you. If you can’t make it into the therapist office,  certain providers may also offer online therapy. Psychology today is an excellent resource to help one find therapists in your area. 

“What should I expect from therapy?”

Once you and your therapist agree on a schedule, it’s important to open up and process what you’re thinking and feeling. Once you’re in the office, it’s important to feel safe and comfortable so you can have an open exchange on any topic that feels like it is inhibiting you. 

A common misconception is that people think that therapy is a quick fix and things will get better in a few weeks. In reality, therapy is a process. 

Parents usually feel worse before they get better. It’s important to not give up and push through the rough patch, as this is usually when parents give up because it gets too intense. In reality, this is a sign of progress and it’s critical for parents to push through this as it teaches you about yourself and gives you tools to handle your new life.

“General advice for parents raising kid(s) on the spectrum”

The most successful parents are the ones who were inclusive of their friends and family. The ones who were more comfortable revealing their diagnosis and open to educating those around them end up receiving more help and see more progress in their children. This is because everyone pulls together as a community, and simple things like friends encouraging the child to maintain eye contact while having a conversation leads to more opportunities to practice their skills in different environments with different people. 

Conclusion

We understand that it’s easier said than done. It’s a known fact the first few steps are often the hardest, and it’s been also proven that parents who stay with the course are more successful with their families and themselves! Parenting is hard and self-care is not selfish. 

About Jackie: 

Jackie is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MA LMFT, who has had over 10 years of experience with adults, adolescents, and children with behavioral and emotional problems. Areas of specialty are autism, ADHD, anxiety, depressive disorders, and adjustment problems.

She believes that it’s already stressful to be a parent and it’s helpful to have someone guide you through the process so they can get a little more help in understanding the diagnosis and the process.

We encourage you to reach out to her via her website!

My son has always been a good student.  Teacher feedback over the years has been consistent: “He’s a delight in the classroom! He’s attentive, participates and loves to learn!”  He even gets straight A’s most of the time – but he has always struggled in school.  Every year, he has struggled with completing assignments on time, test taking and reading comprehension. He’s always tested very poorly, not because he doesn’t know the answers or material, but because he runs out of time on every test. It takes him three hours to do homework at night, when his teacher says it should take him 30 minutes. I recall one teacher telling us, “It’s not like he isn’t paying attention, when I tell the students to start the assignment or test, your son sits and stares at the paper and his pencil for a long time before eventually starting.”  What the teacher didn’t tell me then — but what I know now — is that my son has executive function challenges. 

“Executive Functioning skills” isn’t a term I knew before digging into my son’s struggles in the classroom. The term “Executive Functioning” or “EF” has been around since the 1970s (prefrontal cortex and all that) and it’s basically defined as the skills needed to perform daily tasks. It includes skills like paying attention, organizing, planning, starting tasks, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. The importance of its role in academics has gained support in recent years.  Interventions targeting executive function skills, in fact, have skyrocketed in recent years.  

Most recently, there’s quite a bit of discussion in educational communities around the impacts of the pandemic on executive function development. As learners have been at home, it may be easier for students to manage time without having to make the trip to school — but may have stunted learning of EF skills as well.  While all learners and situations are different, below are a few common signs of executive functioning weaknesses.

  • Difficulty starting or completing tasks
  • Inability to organize or plan for future events 
  • Trouble with listening or paying attention
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Challenged by learning or processing new information
  • Inability to control emotions or impulses
  • Trouble with completing tasks in a timely manner

These symptoms can lead to poor performance at school or work, low self-esteem, lack of engagement and motivation, and avoidance of taking on tasks and/or responsibilities. The good news is that there are very practical strategies and readily available tools/games that can help with these everyday challenges. Strategies like bedtime checklists, goals calendars, and board games that can help strengthen EF skills (and are fun for kids).

Professional expertise can also be helpful, especially when executive functioning weaknesses significantly impact your child’s self-esteem or creates anxiety. Experts generally recommend a range of strategies including occupational, speech or mental health specialists. Now that my son is a teenager, I find it a bit harder for me to work with him on these particular struggles (as you see here, I talk to a lot of hands). Sometimes it is helpful to have an outside person or coach in their life to provide frequent check-ins, real-time guidance, and mentoring to increase the efficacy of strategy building. Sure, parents can absolutely tackle aspects of EF. But having someone else who is trained and skilled and can be the bridge from learner to home and school application is HUGE.

Educator Appreciation Week

Educator Appreciation Week is upon us and provides the perfect opportunity to show the educators in your life gratitude for all that they have done for your community. Showing appreciation is easier than one may think and is top priority this year of all years because of the ongoing pandemic. Here we will discuss why Educator Appreciation Week is important as well as how you, as parents and supporters, can join in the efforts to make sure each and every teacher feels valued. 

The Top Reasons Why Educators Deserve Our Appreciation

This is a no-brainer, right? Wrong (unfortunately). Many teachers go weeks, months or even years without feeling the level of appreciation that they are due. Let’s dive into a brief list of the reasons why we, as parents and community members, owe educators gratitude all year long!

  • Teachers ignite learning and unlock learner potential.
  • Teachers work tirelessly for their learners and their families.
  • Teachers are dedicated to securing your child’s success.
  • Teachers are experts in their field.
  • Teachers inspire learners to overcome challenges. 
  • Teachers exude creativity. 
  • Teachers motivate learners to embrace their strengths. 
  • Teachers help learners discover their interests.
  • Teachers are role models.
  •  Teachers are phenomenal human beings. 

The Top Ways to Show Educators Appreciation

Teachers deserve tokens of gratitude all year long, so don’t reserve your efforts for Educator Appreciation Week or think that you missed the opportunity to do so if the week has come to an end. Here are just a few ways (there are many more) to show how much you appreciate the educators in your lives: 

  • Bring coffee, tea or sweet treats.
  • Send a handwritten note.
  • Offer to volunteer in and out of the classroom. 
  • Make cards and/or something crafty.
  • Gift a potted plant or flowers.
  • Donate classroom supplies like books for their library, a speaker for music, and so forth.
  • Gift cards are always welcomed!
  • Prepare a project for the class.
  • Help organize class guests or field trips.
  •  Purchase a service subscription like an app (Calm, Boom Cards, etc.).

Taking time to express gratitude can go a very long way with only a little effort. The purpose of showing educators your love and admiration is clear. Now, let’s join forces as a community and use the momentum of Educator Appreciation Week to sprinkle in signs of our deep appreciation all year long in these fun, simple ways!