What It's Like to Teach at BEAM

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Cecily Santiago, a first-year faculty member at BEAM Summer Away at Bard College, shared the following with her friends after her summer with BEAM (and we wanted to share it with you)!

This summer, I spent three weeks working as a math instructor at BEAM Summer Away. This has been one of the best experiences of my life, personally and pedagogically, and BEAM's mission is so much in line with my own values that it was a perfect fit.

Let me tell you about why I think BEAM is so awesome:

Last winter, I saw a post in a Facebook group about this job, teaching math at a three-week summer math camp. I clicked on it and immediately knew I wanted to apply for this. It didn’t pay as much as some other summer opportunities, and the application was long and daunting—they wanted a sample lesson plan! They wanted paragraphs about my pedagogical philosophy! They wanted to know how I would react in certain situations! But this didn’t deter me—their focus on excellent math education as a vehicle for social justice was right up my alley. My goal in life is to give the world a group hug using mathematics, and this was an opportunity to work on that goal.

BEAM finds their students from the most underfunded school districts in NYC and LA, testing their ability for abstract problem solving regardless of academic preparation. For those who shine, they run a day camp the summer after 6th grade and a sleep away camp the summer after 7th grade. Here, they teach math in a fun and accessible way, helping to strengthen the kids’ skills in school math, like fractions, but also giving them exploratory courses in math that few people who aren’t math majors ever get to see, working on their ability to reason, prove, and generalize. After these camps, students continue with Saturday Classes, with specialized support for getting into other math programs and competitive high schools. Throughout high school and even into college, the program supports these kids on their academic journeys, giving them the tools, resources, and information necessary for them to excel as students and preparing them to enter math-related careers if they choose to. I applied to be Junior Faculty at the summer camp.

BEAM students work on toppling sandpiles in Cecily’s class.

BEAM students work on toppling sandpiles in Cecily’s class.

The next step was a TWO HOUR video interview. I emphasize the application and interview process so much because it indicates how much BEAM cares about finding excellent people to staff their camps. Even the counselors, who were not teaching, went through a similar process. It wasn’t just an interview—it was a conversation. This is also typical of BEAM—they are collaborative and appreciate feedback and input from students and staff alike. Nothing is ever a certain way “just because.” There is always a reason, usually a good one, and if things can be done better everyone works together to find a better way.

I was offered the position and enthusiastically accepted! I finally met some of the BEAM staff on a planning retreat in NYC in May, and it was so amazing to be around people who care so deeply about math education. In many ways, I felt like I’d found my people. The staff come from a wide variety of backgrounds, intellectually and socially, but they are all united in how much they care, how much good they want to do, and how humble they are as they do it. Everyone was working incredibly hard, with passion and joy, and no one was patting themselves on the back.

When I arrived at Bard College, the “Summer Away” site that hired me, I was nervous about working with 13 year olds and didn’t know what I should expect in the classroom. I knew that these kids had an affinity for math, but I also knew their math background was lacking. I knew I was supposed to plan fun, engaging, somewhat rigorous, and very inquiry-based courses, but I didn’t know if the students would want to be engaged. I had never planned a course like that—in fact, I had never planned a course about something I wanted to teach, or planned a course completely from scratch, or planned a course that was in line with how I believe math should be taught.

Turns out my fears were unfounded. The kids were AWESOME. They started off shy, but soon they were all shining with their vibrant and unique personalities, befriending each other and the staff alike. In the classroom, they were interested and engaged and insightful. Every single one of them pushed themself to grow and learn and come out stronger than they came in. They all started in different places and they all ended in different places—although these students are all strong mathematical thinkers, some had better preparation coming in and some had more intuition for certain aspects of math than others—but every single one of them ended as a better mathematician, and probably also better future-adult than they came in as.

Cecily works with a BEAM student.

Cecily works with a BEAM student.

Teaching was amazing. I taught a course on Sandpiles and another on Sets. I learned so much about how to run a classroom. I got to teach at the pace that was right for the students. I got to take the whole class down unplanned avenues that sparked their interest. I got to interact personally with every student. I got to create games and challenges that supported the course material. I got to make learning a truly fun adventure. I walked away from almost every class with a happy glow. I was given so much freedom, but also a lot of support and feedback. This isn’t just a place for students to grow—this is a place where adults grow too.

Discipline here was really interesting, and different in some significant ways than any other model I’ve experienced. While there were systems and consequences, there were only four rules. Honestly, the first three are now my personal rules for life.

  1. Be here to grow

  2. Be excellent

  3. Don’t do stupid stuff

  4. Follow staff instructions

Pretty much any behavior that we would want to discourage falls into the first three rules. You called another student a mean name? You’re not being excellent. You slacked off during class? You’re not being here to grow. You jumped down a whole flight of stairs? You’re doing stupid stuff. And then number four is a catch all. You’re only eating fries for dinner? I’ll tell you to go back and get some veggies. You refuse? You’re not following staff instructions.

But moreover, the way we handle the kids when they break the rules is, to me, revolutionary. We don’t say “Hey, Dan, stop that! I’m reporting you!” We treat them as future adults rather than as just kids. We would say “Hey, Dan, do you know why I came over to talk to you? Do you think that you’re being excellent right now? Why or why not? Have we talked about this before? Why did you choose to take this action? What could you do better next time? Do you think that reporting you would be an appropriate punishment? What do you think would be appropriate?” We ask them to reflect and learn from their behaviors. When a kid is reported too many times, we have a serious discussion with them. There are ways to get reports taken off your record, if you behave well enough for long enough after something happened. There are more serious consequences if patterns of behavior don’t change, especially if they make the camp unpleasant for the other students, but we start by acknowledging that kids can reflect and make choices and decide how they want to act, and that kids will one day be adults who will need these skills in life.

There is so much more I could say about why I am completely in love with this program, but I just want to emphasize how utterly rare and amazing this organization is. As far as I know, nothing else like it exists. They get everything right, from selecting students to selecting staff, from pedagogy to discipline, from site leadership to overarching structure, from an individual class to a lifetime of support. The students and staff alike thrive here, and I am certainly planning to come back.

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