Dr. Cathy Jones: Letting students take the lead
Dr. Cathy Jones, a math and theory of knowledge teacher in the IB program at Frederick Douglass High School, grew up in a math loving family and teaching is a through line running through her entire life. “I’ve always been interested in how people think about stuff and wanting to help people understand things better,” said Cathy. When she decided academia wasn’t for her and to take a break from union organizing, her love of teaching brought her to high school math.
Another through line in Cathy’s life has been working to empower people to affect change in their own lives instead of having things fixed for them. She strove to do this as a union organizer and she sees her role in the math classroom as an extension of this work. In addition to being both cool and fun, for her, math is a way to learn the critical skills necessary to protect against those who would take advantage of math phobia and mastering it can serve as a great foundation for the confidence essential to making these positive changes. It can also foster a sense of belonging that will carry over the future endeavors of the students at her majority African American high school and counteract the alienating effects of traditionally white spaces like those found at most colleges and universities in the U.S.
This goal of empowering students has had a direct impact on the way Cathy structures her classroom. Her teaching style puts the spotlight on students solving the problems themselves. “What I try to get them to do as much as possible is not watch me, but do it for themselves,” she said. Rather than going with an ‘I do, we do, you do’ model, which can cause students to get in the habit of copying her, she starts with a problem posed directly to her students and lets them try it for themselves first. “I want to be talking as little as possible,” she said. “If I need to say something, then I can, but it’s not where we start.”
By letting the students have control of the board and work out problems up there, Cathy gets the opportunity to check in on the students less inclined to participate and make sure they are also advancing their understanding. She said she also prefers to have students that don’t know the answers go up to the board. It lets the class chime in to help them and gives them a taste of success. “There’s value in being able to stand in front of 25 of your peers and put the answer on the board,” she said.
Empowering her students also means letting them set their own goals. On day one, students in her class write down what they want to accomplish for the school year on manila envelopes. They stay attached to their desks and help everyone reflect on why they are there. “It helps me get to know my students better in terms of what their priorities are,” said Cathy. “It not only helps them remember what intention they set at the beginning of the whole school year. It helps me remember too and that’s really grounding and effective for me.”
Photos courtesy of Cathy Jones