An Interview With Sarah Blick Vandivort, FASPS's U.S. Math Teacher

Posted by Kyle Lewis


Kyle: Why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us how long you’ve been at FASPS and what you teach?

Sarah: I'm Sarah Blick Vandivort. This is my fifth year at FASPS. I teach Middle School U.S. math for grades 6, 7, and 8, and I am the math coordinator for the Lower School as well.

Kyle: And what were you doing before you came to FASPS?

Sarah: Five years ago, I was teaching middle school in Brooklyn, New York.

Kyle: That’s quite a change. What brought you out here?

Sarah: My boyfriend, now husband, and I were living in Brooklyn. Things were quite expensive. We were never going to be able to save for a house, and we just didn't see ourselves settling down there. So we picked a place where we knew people and that we thought would be fun to live in, with a balance of city life and nature.

Kyle: Are you from Brooklyn?

Sarah: I grew up in northern New Jersey, right outside of New York City.

Kyle: Have you been a middle school math teacher your entire career?

Sarah: In college I majored in math and French, a double major, and then for grad school I did a master's in math education. I got certified in New York State for grades 5 through 12, then I also got certified to teach French, but that was just passing a test, and I never had a chance to use it. I student-taught both middle school and high school, and I liked middle school better. I think I taught middle school math in Brooklyn for five years, and I was also a math educational consultant for six months.

Kyle: Did this job bring you out here, or did you find this job after you arrived?

Sarah: We were thinking that we wanted to move to Seattle, and then I was just looking for jobs here, and I found this one.

Kyle: How does the teaching of math in both French and English work in the Middle School here at FASPS?

Sarah: The curriculums are pretty different. The French teach geometry concepts earlier, and then they don't teach algebra until high school. In the United States we tend to teach algebra earlier on; starting with pre-algebra in middle school; some students take Algebra 1 in middle school. And then geometry is typically taught as a tenth-grade course or after algebra, so it's done in a different order. Anne Sophie for French math focuses more on geometry, and I focus on algebra.

Kyle: So all Middle School students take math in sixth, seven, and eighth grades in both languages?

Sarah: Yes.

Kyle: How many days a week are they with you?

Sarah: They have three hours of each one each week.

Kyle: And you focus on algebra, and Anne Sophie focuses on geometry?

Sarah: There's definitely some overlap because she's following the French curriculum. It's not only geometry in France. They do a lot of work with fractions throughout the three grades and proportionality as well, so there's definitely overlap, but the students get the vocabulary in both languages. She has her main focus on geometry, and then any geometry that would come up in the middle school curriculum in America I skip; I just focus on the algebra.

Kyle: What's the difference between sixth, seventh, and eighth grade as far as your program?

Sarah: I do pre-algebra in sixth grade. In seventh grade, the students are divided into two differentiated groups. One group is the accelerated Algebra 1 class; they do Algebra 1 in seventh grade, and then we do an intro to Algebra 2 in eighth grade. And the other group does Algebra 1 over the course of two years; they get Algebra 1 first year in seventh grade and Algebra 1 second year in eighth grade. But all students are learning Algebra 1 in Middle School, which is advanced for a typical middle schooler.

Kyle: Have you heard back from alumni letting you know how well prepared they were for math in high school?

Sarah: Yes. Typically, most FASPS students skip Algebra 1 when they go to high school, and they skip Geometry because they have geometry through the French math curriculum. Most FASPS students start high school taking Algebra 2.

Kyle: Wow. That’s great.

Sarah: Yeah.

Kyle: You wanted to talk about this program, desmos …

Sarah: Yeah, it's an online graphing calculator. If you remember in high school, you had that TI-83 or 84, which cost $100. Every student had to buy one, and it was pretty limited in what it could do, but it did do a lot. Desmos is like that but free and online, and much more powerful.

Kyle: Only online or is there an app too?

Sarah: Yes, it’s an app. It’s much more powerful, and it's free. There are a lot of states that are integrating it into their state tests instead of using the TI calculator.

Kyle: Really?

Sarah: Yeah. I think the tests are computer-based with a window that pops up for the calculator.

Kyle: How do you use it in your classes?

Sarah: I first learned about it when I went to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, NCTM. FASPS has a K–8 institutional membership. I went to their regional conference in Nashville in 2015, where I learned about desmos classroom activities for the first time. I had known about the graphing calculator part of it because you can graph lines, you can manipulate lines, but I never knew about their classroom activities.

Kyle: So it's more than just a tool?

Sarah: It's more than just a tool. There are a lot of interactive activities that I learned about in Nashville. It was really cool, and I started using some of them in my classes, trying to get the hang of it. I use the graphing calculator platform a lot as well. And then at the end of that school year, 2016, I saw that they were having a call-out for fellowships. They wanted to get about 40 teachers to be their first cohort of desmos fellows to learn more about it and then promote it for other teachers. I applied, and I got in; I was in their first cohort.

Kyle: In Nashville?

Sarah: No, they are based in San Francisco. I went there. That was in November of 2016. We met with their CEO and then all of their employees, and there were math teacher celebrities. People that have blogs and activities who everyone knows about; they now work for desmos, so that was very cool. We got to learn about more of their activities and what they're doing, and the things that they have in beta. We got to offer our opinions about what they should be doing. It was really interactive. I got to create my own activities. Anyone can create their own desmos activities, so I got to learn about how they create theirs, what’s the thought-process around that. And I’m also a part of a Slack community that all the fellows are a part of. I think they’re on their third or fourth cohort by now.

Kyle: Do the students like it?

Sarah: Yes, they do. I do these activities fairly often. I did one in sixth grade and one in eighth grade today. There’s a lot to them. I did one on adding negative numbers with the sixth grade, and then I did one on the domain and range of functions … there’s a variety of topics. They say they cover topics from grades 6 through 12, but I’ve found some activities that are for lower grades too. And then I also found that some math teachers in Canada have created French translations for a lot of their activities; I want to show that to the French teachers.

Kyle: You said that you’re the Lower School coordinator for the math program. Can you tell us what exactly that means?

Sarah: I help the teachers with math resources or if they have questions of differentiation and enrichment. And I run the math Olympiad team for fourth and fifth grade.

Kyle: Talk about that a little bit.

Sarah: The Math Olympiad is not associated with desmos; it’s an international competition. Schools from all over the world can register, and then we get the contents online. You do them in your school, submit the results. There are five contests throughout the year. You do one a month, you submit the results, and then at the end of the year they share the results. I have a team of 20 students, and I select students in the beginning of the year. I give them an audition test, and I have the fourth and fifth grade teachers offer advice on who they think should be on the team based on how they do in class, ERBs, diagnostic assessments, and my audition test. And then we have the team of 20, and they all take the five contests, and it’s those scores that are tabulated. Then we have an awards ceremony. The students learn critical thinking, problem-solving, and how to solve problems creatively, and we practice throughout the year.

Kyle: You're competing against schools and students in the same grades throughout the world?

Sarah: Yes.

Kyle: When's the first one?

Sarah: The first contest is in November. I just got the team together, and we'll have our first practice in a couple weeks. There's a contest every month from November through March.

Kyle: Thank you for talking with me today. I think you have a class in a few minutes to get to.

Sarah: Thank you.