While television audiences may always associate actress Danica McKellar with her role as Winnie Cooper, friend and occasional girlfriend of Kevin Arnold on the coming-of-age comedy The Wonder Years, the grown-up McKellar now wants to be known for the message shes spreading to girls: Math doesnt suck.
McKellar put acting on hold for four years while she majored in math at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). But when she was younger, like many girls, she struggled with math anxiety and thought it was strictly a subject for geeky, socially-and-fashion-challenged guys. (Think white shirts, Hush puppies, and pocket protectors.)
To help demystify math and make it more user-friendly for girls, McKeller wrote Math Doesnt Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Breaking a Nail or Losing Your Mind, a book aimed at pre-teen and teen girly girls.
In the book, McKellar uses girl-friendly language and examples such as the Greatest Crush Factor (finding common characteristics of crushes to illustrate how to find common factors), comparing the number of flip flops in your collection to your sisters to determine ratios; and calculating how much youll save on a sale item compared to the regular price to show girls how they can use math in their world. The book is written in a casual, teen magazine-type style, and includes personality quizzes and profiles of women mathematicians.
People who buy the book also receive 75 minutes of free online tutoring from Tutor.com.
McKellar has morphed into a bona fide math geek. She graduated with high honors from UCLA in 1998, and is the only television actress in the U.S. to coauthor a groundbreaking mathematical physics theorem, which was published in the Journal of Physics (the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem). She answers math problems online and has testified before the U.S. Congress about the importance of women in mathematics.
As McKellar embraced her math ability, she discovered a lot about herself, public perceptions about her and about math, and peoples perceptions about girls and math. Now she is driven to build girls confidence by helping them master math.
Besides promoting her book, McKellar has returned to acting -- she is scheduled to appear in an episode of How I Met Your Mother October 15; has starred in a movie for Lifetime Movie Channel called Inspector Mom, and she had a recurring role on the fourth season of The West Wing,
She talked with Education World about her commitment to helping girls use math fearlessly.
Danica McKellar: I have been passionate about math for a long time and Im also passionate about helping girls not be afraid of math. It has a reputation for being scary, too hard, and it has that reputation for some legitimate reasons -- it does get hard and scary at times. But its got a stigma, so a lot of people, especially girls, tend to think this is not for them. Its for these other really smart people who live on Planet Math or something and girls are also taught that math is not for them, because its really more for boys than for them.
What I attempted to do in the book, and what seems to be working, is teach math in the context of tween and teen girls lives. And that really shows them that it is for them, and it becomes relevant in their lives and it can be fun and puts math in the context of girly things, if you want. Because math is universal; math is through everything, whether it is boy-type activities like word-type problems that have to do with sports and baseball averages and things like that. Or you can be talking about the ratio of flip flops you have to your sister. Thats shopping, and if theres a sale that says take an additional 30 percent off a sale item, you know how to do that in your head. Math comes up everywhere. So I just took the angle, lets look at math for girly girls. Why not?
I [set up the book] in the structure of a teen magazine, so I teach math in it but I also include some of the elements teen magazines have because theyre fun and show that math is not such a big deal. So I put math personality quizzes in it, like Are You a Mathophobe? and teach math based on examples or metaphors, like whether you still have a crush on a boy. I teach finding common factors sourced by having the girls think about someone they used to have a crush on and who they have a crush on now, and have them write down a list of all the factors that make them like this guy, and write down all the factors they liked about the last guy, and then circle all the ones they have in common. If they have a lot in common, then they probably still have a crush on the last guy. But then when girls have to write out the factors for numbers and circle the common ones, it doesnt feel as boring. Youve created a different association with it.
And anyway I had a lot of laughs putting this book together because I thought, What would I want to be reading about?I wanted to make learning fun. I dont understand why learning has to be boring. It can be totally fun and totally relevant to what youre thinking about and what youre curious about.
McKellar: Im reaching out to the girls who think of themselves as someone who math isnt for. Im trying to reach the girls whod rather be reading a teen magazine than doing their math homework. Thats the most specific audience. Other girls who may fit into that category; if maybe they even had an interest in math already, thats great. They may not need the book as much, but they can still get so much out of it. I just want to reach out a hand to girls who have been told on every conceivable level that math is not for them.
EW: What kinds of responses have you received from readers?
McKellar: Thats the best part of the whole thing. First of all I got these e-mails like, This book is really cool, thank you so much, Its really fun, Im having a good time. Now Im getting e-mails saying, I used to get Cs, now Im getting As, and that is the best. Theres some review where a parent says that My daughter was never interested in math before, and now shes had her nose in the book ever since I brought it home. She finally gets fractions. We had such a problem with fractions last year.
I love hearing that We had such problems with fractions last year because that means that the parent is involved in the kids education which I think is so great, so important.
When they say, She finally gets fractions now, that just makes me so happy. It makes me feel so warm and fuzzy inside.
EW: How can teachers use your book in the classroom?
McKellar: Ive had a lot of teachers e-mail me saying they have found some of the tricks in the book useful and theyve been able to incorporate them into their teaching so it makes math more fun. And theyve got boys and girls, so I guess theyre picking out certain tricks. There are a lot of examples with pizza and other gender neutral things and everyone knows what shopping is.
Some teachers have also said that they have used some of the personality quizzes, and a few have e-mailed me to make sure it would be okay to photocopy that quiz and use it in class. The publisher said it was fine.
Ive definitely been hearing reports of it being integrated [into lessons] -- a lot of people are buying it for their school libraries.
EW: Has anyone raised concerns that tying math to shopping, dating, and makeup is talking down to girls?
McKellar: You know, people have asked me if they think Im dumbing-down the math. First of all, the math youll find in the book is no less a version of math than anything else. I dont feel like Im talking down to girls -- I feel like Im speaking to things that girly girls find fun.
I want to emphasize that the stereotypes that we all have in our minds that girly stuff is somehow less than boys stuff is exactly why I wrote the book. There is nothing less legitimate about wanting to play with fashion and makeup and learn how to self-present in this world, self-market if you will, to learn who they are. Saying that is youre suggesting, or anyone is suggesting, that girls are less than boys. [Or] that girls things are less legitimate than boys and the activities they find fun at that age [are less legitimate.]
The examples that you see in textbooks that have to do with more boy-oriented subjects, likesports, no one ever says, Are youre dumbing-down math for the jocks?
Whats interesting is if you look at the language -- things that are female tend to be given a less than reputation. Like they are a smaller version of the guys things. And I think thats something we can all examine in ourselves. We all have prejudices that girls arent as good as boys.
I think the most liberated of us all I think on some level if we were told that all the girls in the next generation were not going to understand math we would all think, Oh my gosh, what a shame, thats terrible, what can I do about it? If we were told all the boys in the next generation were not going to understand math, we would feel a panic at a different level and wonder about the future of this country.
And when you realize that we have such deep-ingrained feelings like that, I think thats the first step in making changes... Why should the girls have any less of an impact on the future of this country? Whats the difference? Why do we still believe on some level that girls learning stuff is a bonus of some sort, but guys actually have to learn it? Thats exactly the kind of prejudice that shows up in the classroom, with teachers sometimes not even realizing theyre doing it.
EW: I can see youre very passionate about this. I dont necessarily agree with that point of view.
McKellar: Ive been asked the question before.
I so dont mean to be attacking you in any way shape or form. Im simply [responding] to people in the audience who might believe what youve asked. Because there are some people out there who do.
EW: What do you think would help adolescent girls balance their need to be cool with the motivation to do well in math?
McKellar: What Im attempting to do in the book is help them to think of it as not something you have to balance, but things that work together. One thing is trying to show them that math can add to everything they consider to be cool, which at that age is the fashion, the shopping, the boys, and everything else; that knowing math can actually help you in those areas. So thats one thing.
Another thing I talk about on Math Doesnt Suck is that in the book there are personality quizzes and there is also one online, and its about Do you hide your smarts? So its looking at the balance between being smart and not showing off.
And at that age, Ive learned through all my research and talking to kids and doing surveys its like the kiss of death to be a show-off.
So its the idea of embracing your own abilities and not dumbing-yourself-down, but at the same time, you dont want to flaunt your abilities. So theres that balance that definitely needs to be struck. You dont want to show off your success -- I want to make sure girls know Im aware of that issue. Im not trying to tell them to be that girl whos a know-it-all, because thats not cool either.
EW: Who or what made a difference for you in your math education?
McKellar: I went to an all girls schools which I think helped in some ways. But I also had a couple of teachers who really made a difference
I tell a story in the introduction of the book about this seventh grade math teacher I had. At the time I was so afraid of math -- I used to come home and cry[over] math homework ..I just got all bogged up.
There was this one quiz I remember taking and I studied and I just did not put anything on the page. The bell rang and everyone turned in their quizzes and I hadnt put anything down yet. I was just paralyzed. And the teacher let me stay there and keep working on it until recess, even after everyone else had left. It was the strangest, most surreal experience because I kept thinking, How come I get to stay? Nobody else is getting extra time. Somehow she knew to reach out to me -- and kind of gave me the message You can do this. It just gave me this feeling of relaxation I remember and a feeling of wonder. And I ended up getting to write stuff down on the quiz and I ended up doing okay -- I got a C on that quiz, but I started to relax and do better and it made a big difference.
And then there was this teacher in the 11th grade who did something really great. I was always worried about grades. He said to the class, You know what? Dont worry about your grades. Let me worry about your grades. You worry about the math. You know, it was like, Just focus on learning the stuff and Ill figure out how to give you guys grades that make sense. We were all counting points and trying to make sure we got enough, and he just like that he lifted that from us. I keep that with me to this day.
He was Mr. Metzger and he passed away a couple of years ago. Mr. Metzgers son came to the book-signing in San Diego. I had never met him before It was really neat. I said your dad had really made a difference in my life, and his son said, I know; I saw his name in the book and I really wanted to come and thank you for that.
EW: : From what I read, you started at UCLA as a drama major?
McKellar: Film major.
EW: So how did you veer off into math?
McKellar: Interestingly enough, near the end of my first year in college, I felt like my brain was getting a little mushy. It didnt feel like I was sharp. I thought, Why dont I just take a math class? because I had to take general requirements anyway for two years, and this math would fulfill one of them. So I took this class, and I was terrified. I thought, Oh my gosh, high school math was so hard, college math has got to be impossible. I couldnt even imagine the kind of people who study math in college. It had such a reputation. I never imagined being a math major.
But I took the class and I did really well in it. And I was floored. And I loved it, and I loved it so much and it presented such an amazing opportunity for me to redefine myself out of the Winnie Cooper [role] to give myself confidence and a sense of value that had nothing to do with Hollywood. ..and so I found it an amazing opportunity for that and got addicted to it. I loved it. I loved the feeling of being smart. I loved feeling valued and important for something completely different and for something that was all me, for something I was doing. Thats why.
What I found kind of remarkable about the process is that I never thought I could be a math major. Even after I graduated from high school in the top 3 percent of my class, and got the highest score, 5, on the calculus AP exam, and I did all that -- I thought, Well, I did well, I survived high school math. But college math? I thought that was for somebody else. Who did I think it was for? And if I really thought back about who I thought it was for, I didnt see myself. I didnt think I seemed like a mathematician. I didnt look like a mathematician. I didnt dress like a mathematician. And I didnt think Id be able to do it, I didnt think Id be able to hack it.
And when I took that first midterm, I got the highest score on the midterm. I was floored. It was one of those thingswhere I thought, You mean everyone else isnt smarter than I am?
I had so much going for me to make me believe that math was for me, and yet I didnt. We have to look at the social messages and the reputation that math has and all the stereotypes. I was completely affected by those.
EW: Im envious of you because you are gifted in two areas. Math was always a mystery to me, unfortunately, so I became a writer.
McKellar: You might like the book. You actually might find it kind of fun.
EW: Yes, Im enjoying it. Im understanding fractions for the first since I dont know when.
McKellar: Thats great! Do you know how much I love to hear that?
McKellar: I took a break from acting for four years and just studied math and completely immersed myself in that world and so I wasnt being particularly artistic in any way for a few years. There is creativity in math when you get to a higher level --theres a lot of discovery, exploration, and you can think of different ways to do things and make it so much more complicated in a creative way.
After college I missed acting so much that I went back to it and I just kept math as a hobby. So I didnt want to let go of it completely, but I wasnt doing it professionally any more; I didnt write any more papers, and I hadnt furthered my research.
I discovered that for me, I felt the best use of my abilities in math was to share it, in the form of teaching online and now through this book. So I could be sort of an ambassador of math to girls. I realized that power when I was first just answering math questions online, because first of all, I wanted to keep up my math and I knew that I couldnt do it full-time and also pursue acting. And then I realized it was helping people -- that it wasnt just for me even though it was kind of fun to solve math problems online.
People were saying, Oh, I get this now. And then I realized, wait a minute, people are always so surprised that I get math and I just kept getting more and more aware of the stereotypes and how ordinary that it was for so many girls out there who thought, Well, Im not math, because they didnt look like a mathematician. What if they had these abilities and desires that they didnt know about? And then I thought, what about the people out there who recognize me every day and say Well, gosh, what did you study in school? Math. Wow. I could never do math.
Then theres that thing, nine times out of ten when a person says that, when they suddenly look a little ashamed or a little embarrassed or a little less than, so I realized how much of an opportunity there was for confidence-building for girls through math.
So I thought, hey, I could do a couple of things. I could help girls find a love for math they may never have had access to before. For the ones who are never going to love math, they are going to benefit from finding confidence through knowing that they can do it. Even if they dont love it, you know what? They can do it. And that kind of satisfaction and feeling of self-esteem is so important at that age.
EW: What connections, if any, do you see between math and acting?
McKellar: Not much. Although I did get to play Catherine in Proof. Its an amazing play about a 25-year-old mathematician and her father. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. It was great. I did it in San Diego and I played the lead role who was a mathematician and it was so much fun.
In the program I think I said, To all of you said Id never be able to combine math and acting, look, I did it!
But really, the best combination of math and acting or being a personality or whatever you want to call it is being able to spread the message about how math is not really that big a deal and all the rest of it. What Im doing right now I feel is the best possible combination of the two.
This e-interview with Danica McKellar is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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