Improving Math by Improving Well-Being at Pelmo Park

By Louise Brown — March 2019

Grade 4 students are gathered on the carpet, some lying on their backs, a couple munching on apples from the class fruit bowl. One boy pops over to help himself from a basket of “fidgies” – squeezeable tennis ball stress-busters – while another starts to stroll around the room. Is this free time? 

Not at all. This is teacher Shayle Graham’s low-stress math class at Pelmo Park Public School in Weston, where everything from the setup of the classroom to the approach to teaching is designed to lower math anxiety and build students’ confidence with numbers. It’s part of a larger focus at the school, to strengthen student well-being in every way – cognitive, social, physical and emotional – so children are more ready to learn. But at this kindergarten-to-Grade 5 school near Black Creek Drive and Highway 401, there’s a focus on easing math phobia in particular, and stopping the fall of math scores. 

“Math is fun now, in a good way – and it didn’t used to be,” says Jeremiah, who now feels more confident tackling problems with numbers. “We get to work in groups, and make jokes; for me, I feel more free.” 

It’s freedom to learn – not tune out, adds classmate Ailya. “It does help us concentrate if we can roam around sometimes while (the teacher) is talking, but she makes sure you’re paying attention to the lesson too.” 

With help from an educational assistant, math coach, a social worker and a principal focussed on pupil well-being, Graham is re-shaping how her students feel about a subject that had been a challenge. And she says it’s starting to pay off, with students who are more willing to stick with math rather than give up in frustration, and whose math marks are beginning to rise. 

“Math usually sparks a lot of anxiety, so we co-created a space in ways that have led to a big reduction in math anxiety,” says Graham. “They can sit wherever they like, and usually some students lie on their backs on the floor. We want them to work collaboratively, so we’ve put the desks together. Being able to eat whenever they want also reduces anxiety for some of my students,” she says, because they can satisfy their hunger as they take part in the lesson, instead of being distracted while waiting for a snack break.

There’s also a calming corner if they need it, and social worker Annette Grossi has worked with them on ways to calm the body, just as Graham has introduced them to healthy ways to express frustration. These are all techniques Math Coach Christine Rowe Quinn folds into the math lesson on her weekly class visit. 

A student writes on a white board during math class while her teacher and classmates look on

“When we reflected on Pelmo students’ lack of engagement with mathematics, we began to uncover stressors and anxieties related to math instruction,” recalls Rowe Quinn, who teaches a math lesson jointly each week with Graham. “Acknowledging that student achievement is directly linked to well-being and equity, we began to consider how we might address well-being with both an academic lens as well as a mental health lens.” 

Graham, who loves teaching math, offered to teach it to all Grade 4 and 5 students at the school, not just her own class, and in turn, a colleague would teach her class English. This gives more Pelmo students the benefit of being taught by their very own math specialist, at a time when studies show many elementary teachers in Ontario lack confidence teaching math, and the province is scrambling for ways to beef up their math skill – including a proposed compulsory math test at teachers’ college. By juggling her timetable, Graham is sharing her love of math with more students. 

She also gives students a voice in what they learn. Before launching a new unit of study, Graham often shows her class the curriculum document and asks them which parts they think they should focus on. 

“I try to break down the barriers and give students a voice, so I see myself as less a teacher and more of a facilitator. We look at the curriculum expectations and talk about what they mean; how would this unit look in class? Why is it significant? I build a lesson with them; it’s not just ‘Mrs. Graham’s plan.’” 

She also ties math activities to individual students’ interest. 

“It helps channel anxiety and frustration if you’re working on something you see as useful. One of my students is doing a math project by planning her own health and beauty company. She is making products from scratch and putting together a business proposal figuring out her cost and profit. I introduced students to my business (I’m an entrepreneur; I have a cosmetic line) which inspired many of them to begin their own business ventures.”

Another way Graham tackles the fear factor in math, is to lace her lessons with humour and child-friendly terms. 

A student and a teacher smiling and laughing in a classroom

“What’s the first thing we do when we look at a math question?” Graham asks. 

“Underline the important terms,” answers a student, and Graham cheers: “You got it, baby! Remember, questions come with a lot of jelly, but we need to focus on the peanut butter. So what’s the first thing to underline? Right – all the numbers.” 

Graham has an easy way with her students, most of whom are bussed from highrises from Weston Rd. and Jane St. The socio-economic need at Pelmo is among the highest in the city, and the percentage of students with special needs is twice that of the board as a whole. Nine out of 10 students are children of colour, notes Principal Ainsworth Morgan, who came to Pelmo three years ago after the school had gone through a period of turnover in the office that had proved disheartening for staff and students. 

Morgan says he could see that student morale was weak, behavior was often challenging and the standardized EQAO scores were low, especially in math. 

“I said, We have to start with equity. We have to set the foundations, change the culture, gain trust. Trust is earned, not given by my title. So my first year, our focus was on equity, through a lens of culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy,” Morgan recalls. 

“One of the problems was anxiety; many students lacked confidence with math and said they hated math. With that understanding, we incorporated the Ministry Of Education’s Well-Being Strategy considering the four domains of well-being: cognitive, physical, social and emotional. And while most teachers start with the cognition piece (2+3= 5), here was an opportunity to work on emotional buy-in.” 

Morgan had a math coach and social worker work with Graham to create a space that helped students feel comfortable. “We included a quiet corner. We began listening to students and addressing all four domains. Students will tell you now they feel less anxiety, and I think their math scores will improve. The first step is to feel confident, and then they’re not as likely to shut down and give up.”

A female elementary student works on math skills in class

This is proving true even for special education students who now are integrated into Graham’s classroom, instead of separate autism and “Home School Program” classes.

“These students showed tremendous adaptation and coping skills, even in such a large classroom setting,” noted educational assistant Wendy James, who played a role in the new approach.

When Graham needs her students’ attention, she calls out the West African command “Ago,” which means “Listen,” to which the class responds: “Ame,” which means “I listen.” It’s a call and response she learned when she taught at the Africentric Alternative school, and students here at Pelmo embrace it. One girl says her parents know the words from Ghana.

At one point, Graham asks the class to read a math problem out loud together: “The student government would like to sell Candy-Grams to raise money (which was actually true this winter at Pelmo.) If they earned $240 in total, and sold Candy-Grams for three hours, how many Candy-Grams would they sell every 15 minutes?”

But the students all read at such different speeds, it’s impossible to tell what they’re saying. Graham has them try it again, warning, “This time, let’s keep the party in one apartment.”

Kids admit such lively turns of phrase help keep them engaged.

“Sometimes she explains things in such a fun tone, it helps you stay interested,” says one student. “We can have a fun environment when she makes it more personal, and she always asks our opinion; once we got to make up our own math question. She gives us free will and we can relate to it on a personal level.”

A group of elementary students us play money to practice a math lesson in class

Building these kinds of relationships with students helps build the trust that’s necessary for learning, says Grossi.

“It’s fair to say that there were a number of challenges at Pelmo in the past few years and that behaviour was one of them. However, we started to look at behaviour as communicating deeper needs, rather than always a choice of students that needs to be ‘fixed’,” said Grossi. “We began trying to look deeper at how to support students on a different level…and incorporate some really innovative ways of existing in a classroom setting that reduce stress, anxiety and frustration. In this case, it just so happened to be in the realm of math, which for many students was where they were noting their stress.”

Beyond math, Morgan has pushed to improve the school in other ways, from re-doing the library and playground outside to boosting the use of culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, and having professional development workshops for staff on the concept of privilege, anti-oppression and unconscious bias.

“You know,” he says, “Equity 101.”