Penn GSE makes math meaningful for West Philly kids

The Responsive Math Teaching project, currently funded by the National Science, has kids in West Philly schools engaging in the work, rather than passively completing it, through summer ‘math festivals.’

Sheena Miles agreed to teach at this year’s six-week summer program, a collaboration between Penn GSE and the Netter Center, but initially requested any subject but math. Her reluctance turned into enthusiasm after a Zoom call with Joy Anderson Davis, of Penn GSE’s Responsive Math Teaching project.

A teacher writing math problems on a white board in front of an elementary school student.


“The way that RMT teaches math is phenomenal. It’s not the traditional pencil on paper—it’s about getting kids involved. We talk about the problems before we even start doing them. This makes the kids realize that we all see things differently, and that we can all arrive to the same answer despite seeing things differently,” Miles says.

Launched with a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the RMT project is currently funded by the National Science Foundation. The “responsive” aspect has to do with kids engaging in the work, rather than passively completing it. It’s about conversation, both with the group and with a partner, and this format challenges the idea that math is based on memorizing multiplication sheets and struggling through equations at your desk. Partner work grounds the lessons in socialization and physical engagement, as opposed to isolation and abstraction. This makes math come to life through dialogue, teamwork, and joint problem-solving.

This August, the RMT project ran math festivals at the Penn Alexander School and Hamilton Elementary, serving kids grades 2-8 and their parents. They also held festivals at Lock Elementary, Gompers Elementary, and Lamberton Elementary this summer, and they have more planned for the fall.

“The festivals focus on play and exploration, on making kids wonder and think,” says Davis. “When you play, you talk and you laugh and you work together with people, and you find many different entry points to math.”

Math-based games include river crossings, mazes, cup stacking, map coloring, and apple picking. All the games are inherently mathematical, despite being so fun. Second-graders and seventh-graders could play the same game, but approach it differently.

“The reason that traditional math doesn’t engage many learners is that it focuses on one way to do things,” says Davis. “It focuses on correct answers, and it focuses on speed. But that’s just one piece of it. Math can be accessible and available for all of us.”

Read more at Penn GSE.