Will Rogers Junior High Teacher Melynee Naegele knows a lot about perseverance. As a special education and math teacher for decades, Naegele drills into students that there is no limit to what they can achieve.
She starts each class out with a Famous Failure: a person who, like her students, experienced some kind of hardship or failure, someone who was told they weren’t good enough; and who overcame anyway. Examples include Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, Abraham Lincoln and Michael Jordan.
It may seem like a weird way to start math class, but Naegele has her reasons.
“I teach the science of a growth mindset,” Naegele said. “Up until recently, people thought your intelligence was fixed, and there wasn’t anything you could do about that.”
Teaching students with disabilities that their struggles do not have to define their future success is the key to helping them achieve their goals in school and beyond, Naegele said.
“If they don’t get that, they aren’t going to be able to do quadratic equations. If they don’t believe that they can learn, and that hard work is how you get there, then they won’t try,” she said.
“We routinely talk about people of color, we routinely talk about women, we routinely talk about people who come from poverty, people that come from situations like my students come from,” Naegele said. “We talk about these people and how they use life principles, growth mindset and character to reach their goals.”
In addition to those daily lessons, and in recognition of Black History Month and Womens Engineering Week, Naegele is using Hidden Figures, the 2016 film and the real life women it is based on, to talk about math, perseverance, and a growth mindset.
For the math lessons, Naegele intends to pause the movie at scenes when the characters are working on math problems, and compare the work NASA mathematicians are doing on screen to the work her 6th, 7th and 8th grade students are doing in the classroom. There are a surprising number of similarities.
The math lesson also includes a group project, similar to a fictional scene in the movie.
Students will be divided by a wall so they can’t see each other, and one student will have to communicate with the other the kinds of math problems they will have to do to right their falling spaceship.
At the end of each paring, students will go over the results of their mission, and think about the areas where they did and didn’t succeed.
“Critical thinking, communicating mathematically, fluency, evaluating the thinking of others, all of those things are soft skills that you use when you’re in a job, and if you can’t do those things, math is also going to be hard,” Naegele said.
She also uses the stories of real life mathematicians Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden to prove that barriers built to hold people back, like race and gender, are conquerable when you believe in yourself.
While many of Naegele’s students are non-white and girls, the lesson is generally applicable to everyone, and can be used for perceived intelligence and math-ability as well.
“There is a misconception that you’re either born a math person, or you’re not,” Naegele said, citing a scientific study that shows all infants demonstrate an ability to quantify their surroundings. “It’s the messages we get about math that causes us to think that we can’t do math.”
Naegele’s math classes are beyond the traditional for both math and special education. Her students don’t memorize formulas and plug in numbers. They think about the problem, and learn for themselves all the different ways they can go about reliably solving them.
The system works, as all of her students perform at adequate or above adequate in math for their grade level.
That style of teaching is also why she incorporates so many life lessons into math.
“I can’t divorce the math that I’m teaching, and the life lessons,” she said. “My students do so much more in my class, because they believe in themselves.”
“You’re educating the whole child,” Naegele said. “I can’t get to the math … I can’t get to the brain, until I get to the heart.”