Black Women in the Global Village

Marilyn Curtain-Phillips is a dedicated high school mathematics teacher, an effective facilitator/speaker and an accomplished author, who has a passion for helping students overcome their math anxieties. Marilyn has published the book “MATH ATTACK: How To Reduce Math Anxiety In The Classroom, At Work And In Everyday Personal Use”, published various articles, and created the playing card game MATH ATTACK, which was designed to improve mental math skills. 

Mariyln sits down with BWLW to share her experiences in publication, her opinions on education and the role of parents, and why more black women should consider studying mathematics in this edition of Black Women in the Global Village.

What is your background in education?

I have been teaching high school and college mathematics for 22 years. I have a bachelor of science degree in mathematics and a master’s degree plus 30 hours (specialist degree) in education – mathematics.

When did you become interested in mathematics?

Growing up, I was always good in mathematics.  Whenever I took standardized tests, mathematics was always my highest score. I decided then to major in mathematics in college and become a mathematics teacher. My mother was a mathematics teacher.

Did your mother influence your decision to study mathematics?  What was her reaction when you decided to pursue that degree?

Yes, she was a strong influence in my decision.  She was very pleased that I was majoring in mathematics.  She advised me to take education courses in case I later decided to teach.  Which is exactly what I ended up doing after a 10 year career in banking and government. I came to the classroom and in 1991 and have been teaching ever since.  After my children came along I was extremely glad that I was teaching because it gave me more time with them.  Our schedules were almost the same, especially during the summer.

This is not the first book you’ve published.  What inspired you to start writing your first book?

My first book is Math Attack: How to Reduce Math Anxiety in Class, at Work and in Everyday Personal Use.  While working on my mathematics thesis, my interest in the causes of math anxiety grew.  In my books, I combine research findings along with my personal experiences as a classroom teacher.  I want people to enjoy mathematics and not be afraid of it or avoid it.  More and more careers are in need of people with a strong mathematics background.

In my new book, Who Is This Mathematician/Scientist?, I want students to see from living examples the accomplishments and different ways that mathematics can be used from art, health care, farming to computer programming.  I wanted my students to be aware of the accomplishments of people like Benjamin Banneker, a free African Mathematician astronomer, mathematician, who was also part of the survey team that surveyed and planned Washington, DC.  I began to focus on people of different nationalities including Jaime Escalante and 10 other mathematicians and scientists.  I have designed my book, so that it can easily be used in the classroom.  Parents can also use the book with their children. Students read a paragraph about a mathematician or scientist, then solve math problems in order identify who the paragraph is about.

Have you enjoyed the experience of writing your books?

I have enjoyed the experience, and would like to continue, creating and conducting workshops for parents, teachers and students.  I would like to write more volumes of my Who Is This Mathematician/Scientists.   I want to make mathematics more attainable to others.  My books have enabled me to do this as an educator beyond my classroom.  My first book was even listed on an Australian school district recommended reading list.

What was the hardest part about writing these books?

The hardest part was staying focused.  I remained focused because I heard a student tell her mother that she wanted to do something for African History Month in their school newspaper, but the white teacher told her that if they did it for African-Americans they would have to a news story on other racial groups.  My reaction was, “Why not?”.  This is what I have done in my book, Who Is this Mathematician/Scientist?  I have included someone from every continent including four female mathematicians.  My thoughts of how many minority students were going through this, as this young girl was, kept me motivated.

Describe how the publishing process was for you.

I have self-published both books.  My first book, published in 1991, was much more expensive using a printing company, whereas now with my second book, with advanced technology, the print on demand services available are at a far less expensive.  Print on demand(POD) with digital technology is used as a way of printing items for a fixed cost per copy, regardless of the size of the order. While the unit price of each physical copy printed is higher than with offset printing, the average cost is lower for very small print runs, because setup costs are much higher for offset printing.  These services generally include printing and shipping a book each time one is ordered, handling royalties and getting listings in online bookstores. The initial investment for POD services is usually less expensive for small quantities of books when compared with self-publishing that uses print runs.

Research different companies prior to selecting a printing company or publisher. Self-publishing is a way for someone to go starting out.  It is important to get a good editor and look into affordable marketing services.  Marketing is important but can be very expensive.

What have been your observations in regards to how mathematics is taught and learned in the U.S.?

Over the years most students are required to take math at a longer period time.  In many states, students in high school have to take four years of mathematics to meet their high school graduation requirement, so they are learning more math than ever before.  These are college prep math courses starting with Algebra.

Are there ways that school districts and teachers can improve on the way math is taught in K-12?

I think a return to emphasis on students knowing the basics.  I still believe it is important for a student to know their addition and multiplication facts.  Students need to have a greater number sense.  I think rather than covering so many topics in one year, a student should cover less topics in a year but learn them well.  This is what is done in countries like Singapore and they have some of the best scores in the world.  As students get a deeper understanding they will be more successful rather than just cramming and learning math facts for a little while.

What do you notice about student performance when parents are involved vs. parents who are not?

With parental involvement, students work harder to be successful.  Those students feel that their parents won’t accept anything less.  What do you notice with the students whose parents are not involved in their children’s studies?  How can parents become more involved to help their students excel?

When parents are not involved, a child can easily get lost in the masses.  There are many students whose mathematics and reading skills are three or four years below grade level.  They have no idea.  If they are actively involved in reading to their child or doing homework or checking their child’s homework, they could help fill in the gaps and help their child become stronger academically.  A parent doesn’t have to have a college degree to do this.

A wonderful way to become more active is to volunteer, which is commonly done in elementary schools.  Parents should meet with their child’s teacher especially during open house at the beginning of the school year.   Some parents think that when a child is in high school they no longer need their guidance, but this is far from true.  Parents should keep in contact with their child’s guidance counselor. When  a student realizes their parent and teachers are communicating, there is less class disruption and a student is more inclined to turn in the assignments.

How do we get more girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects?

I think field trips, speakers and living examples are one of the best ways to get the interest of young women.  For me, my mother was my role model.  By her living example, I felt that mathematics was not unattainable for me.  I had confidence that I could do math and that it was not a male subject. The are also  national organization for girls in mathematics career.   Many associations, like the Association for Women in Science, the Society of Women Engineers, and the Association for Women in Mathematics have networking and mentoring opportunities (both online and in person).

I think young women need to be made aware of the career opportunities.  The fastest growing careers require a strong mathematics background.  The STEM fields will be in high demand for many, many decades.  This is one of the reasons why I mentioned and listed these careers in my book, Math Attack: How to Reduce Math Anxiety in the Classroom, at Work and in Everyday Personal Use.

What kind of opportunities do see out there for black women interested in studying subjects like mathematics?

I think the opportunities for women in the STEM field are limitless.  I would encourage someone to major in one of the STEM fields in college.  There are even scholarship programs available in these fields.  Men outnumber women in most STEM careers. For example, just 17 percent of chemical engineers and 22 percent of environmental scientists are women. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard for women to get jobs in those fields. In fact, many companies want to hire and keep qualified women for STEM jobs.

What do you tell students who are convinced math isn’t for them or who are really discouraged with math in general?

I tell them that mathematics is everywhere.  Students need to think about what mathematics has made possible for them, including the technology of cell phones, computers, video games, etc.  It reminds me of the story of Albert Einstein and how he failed a math class in middle school.  I tell them to keep in mind that every year is a new year.  He didn’t talk until the age of two.  His elementary teachers thought that he wouldn’t accomplish much academically.  This is one of the reasons why I included Albert Einstein in my book, so that students know the way you start out in life doesn’t be the way that it will always be.  Albert Einstein proved that a person can be a late bloomer academically and he later blossomed beyond anyone’s expectations. I use his life story to show them that regardless of their prior math experiences, remember that every year is a new year.  A mathematics concept that didn’t make sense at one time would make sense later on.

How has learning mathematics made an impact in your life?

I feel so fortunate to have learned and excelled in mathematics.  As a result of this, I have always been employed and even able to teach part-time if I desired.  I really enjoy being able to help others get over their fear of mathematics and gain confidence in their own abilities.  I want people to see mathematics as a gateway to a world of opportunities.

Math is the key. Let it unlock your potential.

Throughout Marilyn’s 20+ year teaching career, she has received several awards and honors including the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers®, People to People Ambassador Education candidate and the Disney Worldwide Outreach Program (formerly DisneyHand) Teachers Award nominee.  You can learn more about Marilyn’s publications and find more resources on her website, Math-Attack.

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