Vincent Huynh's math classes may look different than they did last fall, but one thing remains the same: his commitment to developing growth mindsets and nurturing students' inherent capacity to learn. Throughout his career, the Animo Florence-Firestone Charter Middle School math teacher has heard the words ‘I hate math,’ or ‘I can’t do math’ countless times, but these statements only motivate him to turn “can't” into “can.”
When schools across the country shifted to distance learning due to the pandemic, Huynh was challenged to rethink his approach to helping students overcome their fears of math. He admits that despite the ample support he received at Green Dot, the new teaching environment made him question his impact in the classroom. “At that point, I was asking myself, am I really making a difference in these kids' lives, like you always just kind of doubt yourself, it’s human nature,” reflected Huynh. He overcame those negative thoughts and saw this opportunity as a challenge to innovate and find new approaches to helping students conquer their own struggles with math in this new learning environment.
Adapt and Overcome
When students enter Huynh’s virtual classroom they are greeted by his warm smile and infectious personality -- he is always on camera when working with students. To better serve his students and foster connectivity, Huynh has built new unique relational components into all of his lessons, so that students are learning about integer operations and connecting with their peers in an authentic way.
Each session begins with a poll to break the ice and learn something new about each other. This is followed by a positive affirmation exercise that helps students feel confident in confronting the math concepts he will introduce during the lesson. He proceeds to call on students, “I want you to look at the posters on the screen, can you pick one that you can connect with. Pick one that stands out and I want you to share with the class and tell us why,” Huynh says. After a student shares their response, the class joins Huynh in affirming the student’s response and celebrating their participation. Huynh enthusiastically waves plastic hand clapper toys and thanks them for sharing, and then the class transitions into the remainder of the lesson, “let’s go that's what I'm talking about, we’ve got that positive growth mindset going, let's do this!”
Huynh praises and celebrates students’ achievements throughout the class period. This approach helps students develop a positive mindset and the confidence to approach challenges with conviction rather than defeat; it is a deliberate tactic of scaffolding student confidence. A testament to his efforts, students in Huynh’s math classes have been more engaged over the course of the school year, the sentiment of ‘I can’t do math’ has all but gone away. He has even received notes from parents thanking him for encouraging their students.
As we refined our distance learning model, we knew it was critical that we prioritize synchronous online learning. When Green Dot students attend their online classes, they receive at least three and a half hours of live instruction daily, and connect and engage with their teachers and peers in real time. This has enabled Green Dot teachers like Huynh to meet students where they are, even at a distance.
New Barriers, Same Resolve
As his students learn from home, Huynh acknowledges that there are countless things competing for his students' attention and time. “Cell phones, YouTube videos, PlayStation, Xbox, all of those things are entertainment, they are engaging,” said Huynh. “So, the idea is how do you educate them, how do you make things more interesting.”
Huynh has built a sense of awe and wonder into his math classes. He has a stockpile of dad jokes, math puns, and an assortment of props to help tap into students' innate curiosity. His efforts have been recognized by his peers and school leaders. “He is bringing it! He is really committed to pulling the students out of their shells and making sure that online school is fun and exciting for everybody,” said Josh Hartford, Principal at Animo Florence-Firestone.
Huynh’s determination and drive stems from the impact education has had on his own life. Growing up, Huynh wasn’t interested in college, but he found his calling while working with youth in his community church. This experience inspired him to pursue a college degree and expand his impact. “College really changed my life, once I got my bachelors degree I went on to get my masters. I was on a roll,” reflected Huynh. “I saw the value of what education did for my life and thought, I want to bring that to the community.”
The formidable challenges our schools and educators have faced this year has served as unlikely sources of inspiration for us all. Our educators have risen above adversity and adapted their practices to meet our students where they are. Their unwavering belief in the potential of all students combined with their resolve and commitment for our mission, has ensured that all students receive high quality instruction and the support they need to be successful in college, leadership, and life.