Cecilio Dimas, Executive Director of Silicon Valley Math Initiative
Jillian Mendoza: Tell me a little bit about your math journey.
Cecilio Dimas: The math journey for me was rooted in my teacher prep program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I started college as a marketing major and was connected to Junior Achievement during an internship with Texaco. Through Junior Achievement, I was introduced to a lovely 3rd grade class at Papago Elementary School in Phoenix, AZ that sparked my interest in teaching.
When I was a freshman in college, my mother unexpectedly passed away and I went deep into reflection about what would make me most happy in life. I wondered if building a career in education would yield greater happiness than going the business route.
I eventually switched majors to education. While completing over 200 hours of volunteer work in schools, I was often asked to assist with mathematics lessons, stations, or one-on-one tutoring. I noticed some classes were just doing ‘drill and kill’, while others were having discussions about their thinking, using manipulatives, and providing students the opportunity to collaborate. This is really what led me to work in elementary education.
Jillian Mendoza: That sounds like a really formative experience! What did you do after graduating?
Cecilio Dimas: I started teaching in San Jose, CA. I taught 5th grade and 3rd grade students for five years before moving to the middle school level to teach Grade 7 Math and Algebra 1.
When I was teaching I had a coach from the Silicon Valley Math Initiative (SVMI), and I continued to have a coach for 8 of my years in the classroom. It was so amazing to work with my coach. We met weekly to be observed, have lessons scripted, co-teach, and/or analyze student work from MAC/MARS performance tasks.
I started a graduate school program focused on education leadership, while working as an elementary school teacher. One of my first instructors in grad school talked about diversifying your teaching experience. Later that year, I asked my elementary school principal about the possibility of moving to the middle school level to teach mathematics. It turns out the middle school was looking for someone and thought I would be a good match. So I went through all the hoops and hurdles to teach middle school mathematics.
JM: What did you notice about students in 7th grade math compared to when you taught 3rd grade math?
CD: Some of the students I taught in 7th grade were former students from 3rd grade. It was interesting to see them four years later. It was very helpful to discover what stood out to them from their third grade experience. For example, students remembered a lesson about how much caterpillars eat, which I had used to introduce the idea of inputs and outputs. It was affirming and illuminating to hear what their ‘anchor experiences’ were from their previous years of education.
JM: What did you enjoy most about teaching middle school math?
CD: When I taught at the middle school level we participated in many cycles of lesson study. One configuration of a lesson study team was made up of a kindergarten teacher, 2 elementary teachers, and 2 middle school teachers. We studied dot patterns and visual representations. It was really powerful to see how these ideas were perceived by each grade level.
JM: I love those kinds of problems, like Open Middle problems where they are so accessible to any grade level. What led you out of the classroom and where did you go next?
CD: I had been facilitating professional learning sessions with SVMI and was connected to the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) for summer work in partnership with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. Later that year an opportunity emerged to join SCCOE as a math coordinator. I had been teaching for 12 years at that point. I served as a math coordinator for almost 2 years before becoming director of the SCCOE’s STEAM Initiative. I was with SCCOE for about 5 years before joining SVMI full time in May of 2016.
JM: Thanks for all of your service in public education! Looking back, what grade is your favorite to teach?
CD: I really feel that 7th grade is the best kept secret in teaching, they're not the little or big kids on campus. They're figuring out how to be themselves and navigate the ever-changing world around them.
JM: As a high school teacher myself, I really respect that you will take the 7th graders for us! High school teachers are often faced with the struggle to get student buy-in and interest in math, but we know younger kids like math class. So my question is, where does the math path diverge for students?
CD: I think that happens when students are tasked with an overwhelming amount of computational assignments. If you're a student that’s given 20 problems to do for homework and you took as many notes as possible but you still don't understand the symbols and what they represent, that could be the beginning of this divergence. When teachers assign large volumes of work, it can begin to undo the student-teacher relationship. Leaning into Zarreta Hammond’s work and the importance of being a “Warm Demander”, students want teachers to really see them, know them, challenge and yet support them.
JM: That makes me sad… do you have any happy stories about high school math?
CD: Of course! Not all schools work that way. In fact, some of the high schools that SVMI worked with during COVID gave their students SEL surveys, and we found that their students actually felt safest in math class. I think it’s due to how much the teachers engage students in math talks, notice and wonders, and each others’ problem solving strategies. A focus norm or socio-mathematical norm that we encourage teachers to share with their students is, “Errors are gifts, because errors promote discussion”. Even if it's a little error, it can be turned into a short conversation between student pairs and then the whole class.
M: How does identity connect to learning mathematics?
CD: I have two thoughts right away: the first one is from an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show where she interviewed author and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrisson. Toni Morrision shared a story and posed the question, "Does your face light up [when you see children]?" I took this question to heart and started to reflect upon my own facial expressions and what it might communicate to students and the possible impact it might have on students being invited to engage as mathematicians and problem solvers in my classroom.
When your students enter the classroom, do your eyes light up? If they tell you they didn’t do their homework, how do you look at them? All verbal and non-verbal communication I use in the classroom is meant to keep the door open for conversation. I’ve noticed, for myself, when I go deep in thought it affects my facial expressions. My students have called me out on that by asking if I’m mad. From that, I learned to let my guard down, be vulnerable, and openly own the energy (and even facial expressions) I bring into the classroom.
My second thought about identity in mathematics is rooted in the messages school systems share with students that may fall into the category of “Mathematics as a Gatekeeper” or be in contrast with their direct experience and/or that of their family. For example, if students' parents aren’t working in a STEM field and are doing well, students might not see or feel the same sense of urgency to take certain advanced math courses. This may also be true for students who have decided that they aren’t going to pursue a STEM-related career. However, I wonder if we will inspire more students to take advanced math courses if we clearly communicate, through student discourse and frequent problem solving, how they are users and doers of mathematics in the real world.
JM: That’s a great point. So many of my students’ families were hard working and successful, even without STEM backgrounds in their education. So how can we be more supportive of students?
CD: There’s a professor at Chapman University, Cathery Yeh, who shared a project she worked on with a SPED teacher. They asked students to ask their parents about how they use math at work. If I recall correctly, the parents created a video about how they use math so the class could watch it and learn.
One of the stories shared was of a mother that worked at FedEx or UPS. The mother highlighted the importance of placing boxes in the van by considering both the size and the delivery route. It was empowering for the student to see their parent viewed as a mathematical expert for a day in that classroom.
A former student asked me one day, “Why do I need to learn this math? I’m going to be a hairstylist like my mom!” So I asked the student about coloring hair. For example, if someone comes in with dark hair and wants to be blonde, how might a cosmetologist go about creating a mixture to bleach someone’s hair. We talked about that for a short moment, as it was my hope that the student might see the amount of proportional reasoning needed to create the mixture. We discussed how, in this case, meaningful real-world use of proportions could be captured using ratios.
JM: I think many adults also don’t realize when they’re doing math, because the education system conflates math with calculations so much of the time. What’s one thing teachers can bring into their practice to help improve their students’ sense of belonging to their math community?
CD: One powerful tool that all math teachers can use are daily Math Talks. During Math Talks you are fine-tuning student discourse. You can ask students to turn and talk to their partner, building mutual accountability and vulnerability in the classroom. Math Talks help reinforce the idea that we’re all in this together, and that it’s ok to turn to someone else and ask for clarification or help. It’s such a universal instructional routine that pays off in dividends.
Math Talks help students to solve problems at the partner, triad, and/or quad level and realize, as a group, they are all in it together. Students will realize, ‘I might not have all the answers, but we can make sense of this as a group.’ When facilitating Math Talks we are having students practice discussion at the micro level so that during lessons they can call on that structure to help talk through challenging problems. I highly recommend reading 5 Practices for Orchestrating Math Discussion. It’s really powerful to have a structure for some of these kinds of discussions.
Another idea I like to lean into, or perhaps it’s more of a mantra, is a NCTM article by Steve Reinhart titled, ”Never Say Anything A Kid Can Say.” This practice could be one the primary vehicles a teacher could use to ensure that students are regularly invited into mathematics lessons and class discussion.
JM: Any advice for teachers looking to get their students talking more?
CD: If you want to build more student discourse into the classroom, give yourself permission to start with daily Math Talks. A solid Math Talk routine, which includes having all students sharing ideas, strategies, solutions, and/or questions will likely spill over and enhance other parts of your lesson.
About the Author
Jillian Mendoza is an international math and computer science educator. She is passionate about math equity and loves thinking about unsolved math problems. Connect with her on LinkedIn.