“This has really broadened my own thinking about early math—what constitutes early math, how children demonstrate math understanding, and how we can get children involved in math thinking.”
In Fall 2019, members of the DREME Teacher Educator project launched an initiative to bring together faculty members interested in deepening their work around early math. We focused on the Central Valley region of California, an area that has historically received minimal support while serving a high proportion of children from marginalized groups.
With funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation, more than two dozen early childhood teacher educators gathered at Fresno City College, a public community college, for our first Early Math in Higher Education (EMHE) institute. We spent a Friday and Saturday together, exploring a variety of video, text, and activity resources designed to promote early math teacher education. (The DREME Teacher Educator project provides free, research-based resources for early childhood teacher educators that prepare prospective and practicing teachers to support young children’s math development. Learn more in this blog post and website.)
While many of the cohort members were already connected through existing networks, our EMHE gatherings provided a unique and welcomed opportunity to connect more deeply in substantive ways.
“As a college instructor, to a certain degree, it’s a lonely occupation. So it was great to hear from your colleagues, ‘Oh wow, you’re experiencing these exact same things!’”
Our cohort members are early childhood faculty across two- and four-year colleges. Some are full-time faculty, sometimes in department chair or coordinator positions. Others are part-time or adjunct, with a variety of roles including preschool teacher, child care center director, and specialist at a county office of education. This is a core group of individuals responsible for the learning and preparation of prospective early childhood educators across the state.
Over meals and coffee, and in whole group, small group, and partner conversations, we discussed the details of children’s mathematical thinking. We reflected on what is important for prospective and practicing early childhood educators to learn about early math and brainstormed how to incorporate the ideas into college coursework.
For six months following the in-person meeting, we met in small groups over Zoom—at a time when collaborating via Zoom was the exception rather than the norm. We checked in with each other, connected around our ongoing work, and built a community of practice that nurtures each other’s efforts to support children’s math learning.
“We see each other at meetings but we don’t really have time to have thoughtful discussion about what we’re doing in our classrooms and how we’re teaching. This [EMHE] has really helped us create more engaged and in-depth dialogue about authentic math.”
Our EMHE network inspired cohort members to extend their own work promoting early math education. They designed and hosted early math workshops for faculty colleagues, local practitioners, and parents and caregivers. Many found immediate ways to apply the ideas to courses they teach, and they jumped at opportunities to redesign course syllabi and develop future early math courses at their college.
One group is curating a list of children’s books that are not traditionally seen as “math books” and designing resources to support mathematical work while reading these books. Another group partnered with local community organization All Dads Matter to add a session focused on math to their workshop series.
Some said their adult students could more skillfully observe and document children’s mathematical understandings. One member said the experience allowed him to see developmentally appropriate ways to support children's math learning without intruding on their play.
“I had students say, ‘That's math?’ It’s like, ‘Yes, that’s math!’ I nearly fell out of my chair with joy because a lot of them express that same feeling: ‘I don't feel comfortable with it [teaching math]. But the way that it was presented, I can do this. These are concepts that we do all the time, but we didn't know it was math.’”
Strikingly, while some cohort members have been excited about math throughout their careers, others experienced an unexpected (but welcomed!) shift in their math identities. They had never identified as a “math person” and as one cohort member put it, “math has not been my friend.” Now, through this collective, ongoing work, they can’t help but see opportunities for math learning everywhere and share this joy for math with others.
One cohort member reported that in her class of 20 students, 15 people eagerly chose math as the focus of their classroom assignment. This marked a stark contrast from previous years when one or two students would choose math.
Members told us their community practitioners shared new excitement for doing math with young children: “I didn’t know math applied to so many areas!” and “So, when’s the next math workshop?”
Amid pandemic challenges, ongoing uncertainty, and hectic work schedules, our EMHE network continues to thrive. Thanks to additional funding from the Silver Giving Foundation, we took on three new cohorts in Fall 2020 and broadened our reach to Northern and Southern California.
As we shifted all meetings online, we prioritized the same kinds of interactive, discussion-based engagement as in our in-person institute. Participants supported each other through the challenges of remote teaching. They worked hard to attend EMHE meetings while managing pandemic concerns: grieving traumatic family loss, navigating back-to-back virtual office meetings, and advocating for statewide early childhood policy changes.
Our EMHE community has grown to 87 early childhood faculty members, representing 64 higher education institutions across California (many members hold positions at more than one institution). The passion for early math is prominent across the EMHE community. Through the ongoing work of cohort members with prospective and practicing early childhood educators, families, and faculty colleagues, this contagious excitement is sure to be experienced across the early childhood field.
Angela Chan Turrou is a senior researcher at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and a member of the DREME Teacher Educator Professional Development project team.