Reeves teacher reflects on project in Netherlands

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Reeves teacher reflects on project in Netherlands
Teacher Jana Dean teaches in her classroomEveryone can learn math. One key to success, says Reeves Middle School math teacher Jana Dean, is understanding the connection between math and language and how it creates opportunities for students to make meaning for themselves.

Dean set out to discover more about that connection last year during a six-month stay in the Netherlands. The veteran math teacher, a 2019 recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, boarded a plane last January for the small country in northwestern Europe.

Her trip abroad, funded by a Fulbright grant, focused on an inquiry project she created called “Math Between Us.” Dean immersed herself in Dutch culture to learn more about the intersection of math and language as people — especially those who teach and learn math in a language different from their native language — communicate with each other about what they see and learn.

Students work at a tableVisits to 30 diverse classrooms

The Olympia educator hopped on and off trains as she moved her way around the country visiting more than 30 classrooms in urban and suburban schools made up of diverse student populations. All the while, she was a second language learner herself, trying as quickly as possible to learn the Dutch language.

From the capital city of Amsterdam to smaller cities in the Dutch countryside, Dean visited special education classrooms, schools with large numbers of refugee students, dual language Dutch-English middle schools, and a tutoring program for historically marginalized students.

She selected the Netherlands for her research because of the Dutch tradition of connecting math to students’ imaginations and experiences. In addition, like the United States, the majority of students there attend public schools and, like U.S. schools, Dutch schools serve immigrant and language-minority and culturally diverse communities. Her work focused on the role of public school classrooms in opening doors for underrepresented students.

“I wanted to learn how Dutch teachers adapt their teaching to meet the needs of students who have come to their country from around the world.”

She said she was particularly impressed watching a teacher at an elementary school that serves families new to the Netherlands. The teacher crossed language barriers by engaging the young students in speaking and writing, and then repeating aloud what students said. They also provided models, such as colored beads on a dowel, so students could see as well as hear the math. And, the teacher remained patient and quiet when children were given time to think, allowing them time to find the words to explain what they understood.

Bicyclist rides down cobbled street in European townLearning along the way

As she traveled the country for her Fulbright research, Dean summarized her discoveries in a “Math Between Us” blog, named after the title of her Fulbright inquiry project.

“I believe in my heart that everyone can learn math,” she said. “As teachers, we use oral language all the time. When we talk, our aim is for students to understand what we mean. Likewise, when students talk about mathematics, we hope to understand what they mean. I learned that what we do as teachers when students are struggling to find the words to say what they mean — what we do in those moments — matters a lot. We have to really listen to them, not rescue them, to help them understand what they mean.”

During her travels Dean also worked alongside researchers at The Freudenthal Institute at Utrecht University, and was able to attend a conference on math and language in Dortmund, Germany. She presented talks at the Ministry of Education in The Hague, as well as in Amsterdam, Finland, Croatia and Utrecht.

Find joy in math

Dutch mathematician Martin Kindt made a notable impression on the American educator. At 82 years of age, Kindt doesn’t have to work but continues to go to the office and write articles for a Dutch math education journal. For him, Dean says, “doing math with others is pure joy.”

After spending an hour talking and mostly doing math together, Dean said Kindt told her, “Every teacher should have a chance to be inspired and to play with mathematics every year.” Inspired by that advice, Dean returned to Olympia and has since invited teachers from throughout the school district to join her for “Math Happy Hour” — an hour devoted to doing math together after school on six different Mondays in her classroom.

“I thought, why not bring teachers together just for the purpose of finding joy in working side-by-side through a math problem and sharing with one another how we saw it and solved it?” she said. “It may be the best way to remember how to bring joy to the problem-solving we do with our students all year.”

Field of purple tulipsOther awards and mentors along the way

In addition to the Fulbright Award for Distinguished Teaching, Dean received the Washington state Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2016.

In 2010, she was instrumental in developing the model of the Jefferson Accelerated Math and Science (JAMS) program at Jefferson Middle School. Dean went on to serve as the lead JAMS teacher for six years before moving to Reeves Middle School.

Dean’s accomplishments in the education field, both as a teacher, a researcher, and a writer come as no surprise to those who work with her now and those who worked with her early in her career.

“Jana Dean has enhanced her professional practice through conscientious and deliberate professional activities beyond basic instructional responsibilities that have impacted student learning in our building and across the district,” said Reeves Middle School Principal Aaron Davis.

Retired Olympia School District teacher Barbara Weaver, who Dean identified as one of her role models in teaching, also spoke highly of the Fulbright scholar. Dean completed her student teaching under Weaver in 1996 at Lincoln Elementary while attending Antioch New England graduate school.

“It was clear even then that Jana did not see a child as an accumulation of test scores, but as a whole child,” Weaver said. “What a gift she brings to our world.”

Next steps in Olympia

Since her return from the Netherlands, Dean has presented her findings at several area conferences and/or workshops, including the Northwest Mathematical Conference in Tacoma and the Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice in Seattle.

An avid bicyclist who enjoys family, sewing, gardening and mountain biking in Capitol State Forest, Dean said one of the highlights of the Netherlands was the availability of numerous bicycle trails. Public transportation is mostly made up of trains, buses and bicycles.

“Rotterdam and Amsterdam are amazing, and I loved bike riding between the rivers, which is a wildish floodplain separating the north and south.”

Dean also has fond memories of friendships made during her six-month stay. “Dutch people are incredibly open, and funny, and tall, and loud and kind. I made friends there, and I will go back someday!”