Seeing math as 'a whole gorgeous piece of art'

Paly teacher uses 'mindset' learning theories to help kids believe in themselves

How do you help students -- especially the struggling ones -- learn to love math?

Palo Alto High School math teacher Suz Antink wrestles with the question on a daily basis.

"You have to keep looking at how the students are hanging, what they might need," said the Palo Alto resident, who this month begins her 30th year of teaching at Paly.

"If education stands still, it's dead in the water."

Antink is famous among students for riding a motorcycle to school -- a blue one that matches her eyes.

"It's a real release to do something like that. When you ride a motorcycle, you have to be in the moment," she said in a recent interview in Paly's Math Resource Center, where she was working with students over the summer.

In the classroom, Antink says she aims to foster the "growth mindset" theories of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck -- that intelligence and talent are not fixed traits, and that even the most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

Her advice to struggling students: "Believe in yourself.

"Know that you can learn anything, and that learning takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and get enough sleep. Make friends with your teacher, and let the teacher know what's going on with you."

For her recent PhD dissertation in educational leadership and change, Antink tested Dweck's "growth mindset" theories on geometry students at Paly.

"We worked on building a collaborative atmosphere in the classroom. We field-tested Brainology (an online curriculum based on Dweck's theories), taught students about growth mindsets and fixed mindsets and how it works. We reiterated it throughout the year and watched the kids grow," Antink said.

She concluded that, even a year later, students with the "mindset" training were earning a full letter-grade higher than other, similar cohorts in Algebra 2 and Calculus because they had "learned how to learn."

Antink herself had no trouble falling in love with mathematics, viewing it from an early age as "gorgeous."

As a student, she was equally passionate about Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, leading her to double major in math and English at Sonoma State University. Her engineer father urged her to pursue the math route so she'd "always have work."

She was drawn to teaching from a young age, when she attended Catholic school in Erie, Penn.

"I noticed the nuns got to wear long dresses, and I thought that was pretty cool even though some of them were pretty mean," she said.

Later, as a high school student in California, Antink lost a younger brother to leukemia. "I'm the oldest girl, and one of the ways our family coped was I took over my mom's duties, getting home in time to greet my siblings and make a home and hearth. I'd help them with their homework, and I really enjoyed it."

The hardest thing about teaching, she said, is "trying to meet the needs of a lot of different students and keeping things fair and balanced, and keeping some basic rules so everybody knows how to operate."

Antink said she feels "more support than pressure" from parents in Palo Alto but occasionally finds it "heartbreaking" when parents have unrealistic expectations for their child.

"There's nothing more painful to a student than when a parent doesn't recognize who he or she is and is always wanting something different from their child. That's got to be really hard on a kid."

The highs of teaching, she said, come when "the kids get it, and they have that 'aha moment' and totally take over the classroom and start explaining to everybody why things are as they are.

"It's phenomenal when they find value, when they come in and say, 'We're actually using this in physics' -- when they see math as a whole gorgeous piece of art."

Antink also appreciates it when kids laugh at her jokes, "because math teachers have great jokes," she said.

"And when you're doing something as wonderful and beautiful as math you should be laughing and smiling a lot."


Like this comment
Posted by Penny
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Great article about a great teacher! So glad Suz is still inspiring students, as she did our daughter in the '90's!

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Posted by short memory?
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm

sorry that reporter missed great opportunity to ask math teacher about the letter she signed, part of math department letter.
I would be interested in knowing her opinion as to teaching the beauty of math to the "slackers". Editor - Slackers was in original math department letter, I did not invent that - please do not remove word. I'm very thankful to those who made the letter public. Although it was published only half a year ago, it is already forgotten. This is a shame, since an opportunity to identify and address some real problems was missed.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 12, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Suz - I hope you read this article. It is very complimentary. Yet I cannot help to wonder if you could clarify your thoughts on the "Math Letter". I read it. I re-read it. I still cannot for the life of me figure out why it was written and signed, by apparently well-meaning people.

We never heard a clarification by it's authors. Left on it's own, uncommented upon, it paints a harsh picture of Math at Paly: Make the cut, or left behind!

It is really frightening that I have to send my kids to your math department, as I worry you will not view them kindly.

They certainly don't need to be called slackers because they cannot "handle" the excessive workload. And maybe they won't have that "aha" moment, because they have been abused by overbearing teachers and have checked out of math. Will they get more of the same treatment at Paly?

Really, can you clarify your intent with the letter? It would put a lot of parents at rest if we just understood how you will treat our kids. (if they are not math whizzes...)

Can you stand and retract your support of the letter? Or at least portions? Will anyone stand for what is a compassionate approach to teaching?

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Posted by Accountability?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Yes it is true that none of those teachers who signed the math letter ever apologized or retracted. Antink attended a meeting with Ken Dauber, Stanfors professor Boaler and Cathy Kirkman and the PNSC leaders and said she stood by the letter. She stated that Professor Boaler a noted expert on the teaching of higher level math to under served kids was wrong and that it was not possible to teach calculus to such teens. No one on the school board ever repudiated the letter and that is why the teachers didn't apologize either.
Now that we are having an election perhaps we can get to the bottom of why the board members never spoke out for our minority kids. Ken provided leadership when they didn't. Say what you want about him he cares about minority achievement and he's not afraid to take a stand for it.

1 person likes this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2012 at 7:44 am

Folks, you keep harping on the failure of teachers to adequately teach higher level math to struggling math students in HIGH school. The problem does not originate in high school.

If kids don't master their multiplication tables in third grade, then the snowball starts rolling from there. If they don't leave the fifth grade with a thorough understanding of fractions, then the game is probably over before it starts. You need that foundation to succeed in the sixth and seventh grade pre-algebra curriculums.

I would like to see more activism on the part of parents to ensure that ALL kids are leaving elementary school adequately prepared to succeed in the middle school math curriculum.

Instead, we get stuck with "Everyday Math".

1 person likes this
Posted by Reality bites...
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Aug 14, 2012 at 10:31 am

Link to the letter. Web Link

I love the letter, I love the intent, I love the suggested outcomes. It is dead on. To those who may have troubles understanding the meaning of the sentence with the word "slackers" in it, it means that students who are ABLE to complete the Algebra 2 requirement by their Senior year but "slack off" and don't do so now, for whatever reason, end up graduating NOT UC ready for no good reason.

Geez, folks. Denying that there are students who are perfectly happy to "slack off", "ride", "coast", whatever through to graduation, happy to do the minimum possible to graduate high school without regard to their future options, is denying reality.

To Ms.Antink: THANK YOU

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 14, 2012 at 11:22 am

The problem with the letter is that the meaning is very clear: if the math team judge your kid to be a "slacker", the teachers simply don't teach them. In fact, there are many reasons a kid does not get a concept. Some involve the teacher; many involve prior year math gaps. ( @Parent - they don't teach multiplication tables in 3rd grade - they just assume the kids will 'get' it, and the kids are left on their own to memorize the tables. The gaps start there, and grow through many years of ineffective teachers.)

The letter makes clear that the teachers will accept no accountability to actually teach the kids - it is much easier to label them slackers, and ignore them. Not all teachers, but it is definitely happening in the district.

This judgement of "slacker" says a lot about how our teachers view our children. This view places the responsibility for teaching on the children, and in turn results in sink-or-swim mentality. This is hugely stressful to the kids. Certainly many hard working kids are not getting the concepts taught; but it is not for a lack of trying.

Of course years of bad teaching does accumulate into disengagement. That makes the H.S. teaching harder, but they should focus on re-engagement, not abandonment.

However, the letter makes clear that they don't consider engagement a good use of their time. As if they get to choose.

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Posted by short memory?
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Parent & anonymous - I wrote above that many real problems need to be addressed. I agree that issues start earlier, math teaching has issues across the board, not only "everyday math". Having math department teachers, THE professionals spending time, writing, signing this letter is another very serious issue. Anonymous, I think this letter indicates that math teachers think they do get to choose. "Slackers" know that. Sense that. The fact that this letter was read by the school board, not addressed - so it seems, and kept out of public knowledge for many months - is another very serious issue. The graduation requirements math teacher feel need to be held differently than other districts is another whole separate issue. Goes back to - getting to choose.

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Posted by surbhijoshi31
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 16, 2012 at 5:44 am

I would like having "basic abacus techniques" for hobby.
Thank you,

Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Aug 16, 2012 at 7:27 am

Anonymous: By the time a kid is in high school, he or she is determining his own future. Parental influence declines dramatically, peer influence rises exponentially, and sometimes another mentor type-teacher, pastor, coach, strikes a nerve and gets a kid back on track, but more often than not, a teen s/he is choosing his path by then. By the time a kid is 14-15, s/he has pretty much been set into who s/he is and what path s/he is going to follow. So, I disagree with you. There truly are teens who have given up on math, for whatever reason (poor background, lack of interest, "too hard", whatever...). The old "you can lead a horse to water..." applies. We can not expect our high school teachers to do miracles and change a teen. The teen has to WANT it, WORK for it, to master math beyond a certain point. The letter makes an excellent point, which baffles me how it can be missed, unless I am just reading into it what my lens sees.

The point: Some kids COULD meet the minimum UC requirements if we had a mid-path for them to take in that 3 years of requirements, others could still choose NOT to if they so desire, but still have 3 years of math to graduate, practical math if you will, which is still useful and perfectly acceptable for non-UC bound kids, which are many.

No, I am not a teacher, nor a math expert, nor anything other than a parent of extremely different kids who has learned that we simply cannot expect every kid to have the same results nor a goal of college, let alone UC college.

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Posted by short memory?
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 16, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Perspective - you wrote: "The point: Some kids COULD meet the minimum UC requirements if we had a mid-path for them to take in that 3 years of requirements"... I think that nobody ever suggested to water down the current curriculum. Seems that many think, as you pointed out, that another - mid path - level, complying with UC requirements is needed. Seems that many understood that this letter implied that such lane would not be appropriate for the "district reputation". Seems that math teachers thought that objecting such lane is a worthy cause. This letter is quite unique - time, thought was put into that. A group of teachers speaking their minds. Anyone recalls any other cause having teachers unite this way?

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Posted by short memory?
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 11, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Math then. English now.
Who's next?

1 person likes this
Posted by Experienced Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 11, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Wow, way to ruin a nice article! The gist of the math letter is that teachers shouldn't have to waste their time with students who don't want to succeed. It shouldn't be twisted into any other extreme liberal interpretation of them not caring about all students. The math teachers we had all sincerely care about students. If a "slacker" student is visiting for help, the math teachers will gladly help! The problem is, those students don't spend their free time asking for help in school. The math department even has staff after school who help with math. There is a teacher with young children who leaves immediately after school, which is unfortunate for struggling students.

Like this comment
Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 11, 2014 at 2:21 pm

I have experienced through my children math learning (they are now 34, 32) by emphasizing that 'math' is so important in our day to day life and for future learning.

Also, pointing out to them, some of the high wage earners are 'math proficient' and math is in all walks of life.

About 60-70% of high paying jobs require math skills; all the way from spread sheet calculations to launching satellites.

Children do realize, as they have access to info on TV and Internet, Math is cool.

Hope we do not scare them how difficult it is when they are in the middle of learning.

I find that calculators do not help to get math proficiency and make it easier to get answers without mental math.

It is a great subject and good discussion item. You are the experts and we listen.


Like this comment
Posted by Veddy Eenteresting
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 11, 2014 at 6:08 pm

[Post removed.]

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