Math is a Team Sport

November 1, 2022

When it comes to solving problems, it helps to know that someone is there for support and encouragement. That goes for math, too. When students work together and challenge each other, math can be like a team sport, instead of an internal struggle.

Joi Mitchell, a former AmeriCorps member serving with Saga Education, is now a Site Director. She said that when she was tutoring Damir Hill, “I paired him with a student who could push him to work hard. I also helped him realize that he can channel his energy into helping others, and eventually, it paid off,” she said.

Hill, who joined the Saga Math Lab in ninth grade at Ron Brown College Preparatory School, in Washington, DC, was recently interviewed along with Mitchell in an article about high-impact tutoring for the New York Times.

“Damir wasn’t a fan of Saga initially,” said Sharanya Balasubramanian, his former Site Director. “Oftentimes, the small group model scares students because it means they can’t fly under the radar. Their insecurities about math really come out,” she added.

Hill admitted that he didn’t like math, and he tried to get out of joining the Saga Math Lab. “At first, I thought I had to take two math classes, and I tried to change my schedule. I used to just put my head down and not do the work,” he said.

Math is Real Life
What helped Hill was how his tutor made math relatable. “Miss Mitchell gave me real-life examples and hands-on activities. I felt like I learned a lot more, and I actually started to like math,” he said.

But like any new challenge, he turned to his team for assistance. “Damir’s tutor never gave up on him and never let him quit either. She found ways to engage him in material based on his interests and strengths. Slowly but surely, he was willing to try doing the work and did not get frustrated when he needed help,” said Balasubramanian.

Math is a Conversation
“I made math fun for him by making it a conversation between him, his groupmates and myself. They worked together, corrected each other’s mistakes and even challenged me at times. I learned about their hobbies and incorporated those in the lesson and also took time out of the day for them to do fun things they wanted like a video game-themed exercise. In fact, research shows that a small group ratio of 1:3 (one tutor to every three students) gives students the opportunity to support and learn from each other.  Mitchell also communicated regularly with Hill’s mother. “She and I were a team in Damir’s growth,” she added.

Balasubramanian saw that the relationship between the two was growing. “Joi took the time to learn more about him and really show him that she cared about his well-being, personally and academically. Once Damir started trusting Joi and realizing her support was helping him grow, he became more open, and stayed focused in class,” said Balasubramanian.

As for Hill, he has big plans for his future. “I want to go to college and start my own sneaker company,” he said.

“Now that he knows what he is capable of, he sees that he has the power to grasp the material and be a leader in the class and in life. He’s seen what happens when he buckles down and takes ownership. He knows that with a little bit of help and focus, there’s nothing he can’t do,” said Mitchell.