Learning the Language of Math
By Emma Comery
By: Emma Comery Photos by: Lillian Reitz
For a Tuesday afternoon in early summer, the Corpus Christi Mathnasium (across from Greenlight Coffee on Staples) is surprisingly well-attended by elementary and middle schoolers armed with pencils and erasers. For every three or four students, there is an instructor working through problem after problem. The question begs itself: Why are they all here during the summer, when school could very well be the last thing on their minds?
At Mathnasium, tutoring isn't just about getting homework done as fast as possible or acing the ACT or SAT (though Mathnasium has helped many a struggling student achieve mathematical greatness and get into college with ease). It's about what owner Christian Schomaker calls “the full education profile: introduction, practice, and mastery.” The students currently here for tutoring laugh as their instructors slap on fuzzy mustaches.
The atmosphere at Mathnasium is everything I wish math had been back in my school days: casual, creative, and a little goofy. There is no homework, no grades. Students drop in as often as they’d like to work with qualified instructors who tailor their tutoring styles to meet the individual needs of the student they are currently working with. There are many reasons so many parents are turning to Mathnasium to supplement their child's math education.
Instructor Vidya Venkatraman is one of those reasons.
Venkatraman puts many math wizards to shame by computing all her math – every fraction conversion, every geometric translation – entirely in her head. She lives with a rare genetic disorder called Retinitis Pigmentosa that involves the breakdown and loss of cells in her retina. In its early stages, RP affects the rods of the retina more than the cones, and as the rods die, the visual field (the area of space that’s visible at any given instance without moving the eyes) compresses, and night blindness occurs. In later stages, the cones begin to die, as well, resulting in tunnel vision. At this point, there is difficulty performing the essential tasks of daily living like reading, driving, walking, and recognizing faces and objects. For those with RP, it’s as if the world begins to shrink, and not just visually.
Diagnosed with RP at infancy, Venkatraman has worn glasses her whole life to accommodate her increasing loss of vision.
“I moved to Corpus from Fort Alberta, Canada when I was 5. I was always good with both numbers and music from a young age,” she shares. (By “good,” she means she competed in every regional UIL Math competition in high school, and has performed at Carnegie Hall. No small accomplishments.) “At that time I had enough vision that I could still test and compete; the print on the page just needed to be enlarged for me. Since then my vision has deteriorated more severely, but I don’t let that stop me. I just have a different way of doing things. Through school and college I had enough support from people that I could do things with a few accommodations.”
In college, Venkatraman built upon her natural proclivity towards Math by earning two numbers-based degrees from Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi: a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting. For a time, she pursued accounting with internships at H&R Block and SV Energy, but by then her RP had begun to affect her cones, and she has been living with tunnel vision ever since.
“I heard about Mathnasium from a family friend of mine. Once I finished my studies, I came in to see what it was all about.” She and her mother walked right up to the front door, resume in hand, and asked to speak with the owner. “Mathnasium has an employment test, but I couldn’t see it, obviously. So Christian suggested that he read the problems aloud. And right from there, we developed a good relationship, and I started volunteering first to see if it would work. And I enjoyed it, so I started working as an employee.”
Schomaker remembers, “She came in one day with all this human potential, but she’s visually impaired. When they inquired about instructing I said, ‘I honestly don’t know.’ Because with the Mathnasium process, each student gets a binder and the instructors work the binder, checking them in, keeping a bit of a ledger. But I thought, sometimes a person just needs a chance, and you never know what greatness will come as the result of that chance. So I paired her up with my most seasoned instructor and it happened. It just happened.”
“I was always worried about if I’d be able to handle the kids,” Venkatraman admits. With no prior teaching or tutoring experience besides teaching piano, this concern is understandable. She had no experience in ACT or SAT tutoring, and no background in working with dyslexic or autistic students. “But,” she continues, “I like this because I work with one to three students at a time. And the kids interact well with me in the small group environment. The kids are really good about reading the problems to me and specifying what they need help with.”
As Venkatraman worked with different students across grades and branches of mathematics, she quickly developed her own teaching style. That’s when Schomaker began to notice a pattern. “Teaching styles vary and the kids will gravitate towards a certain instructor. It’s like a free market. Students with reading difficulties naturally gravitate towards Vidya.”
Since she can’t see the problems students are working on, Venkatraman uses a discussion-based teaching method. “Math is another language in itself,” she says. “Because of my RP, I need to speak it, but the students should learn it, too.”
This technique has been particularly helpful for students with dyslexia, for whom numbers and letters on a page can seem like a tangle of symbols, or a Rubik's Cube with no solution. By talking through math processes and concepts, Venkatraman reduces the stress caused by trying to visually decipher a problem.
Schomaker, who has been running Corpus Christi's Mathnasium for three years and has observed dozens of teaching and learning styles, describes Vidya's unique approach. “With Vidya,” he explains, “the students have a discussion. She doesn't tell them how to solve it. She has them walk her through the problem and asks, ‘What do you think you should do? Now, tell me why. Let’s find out where you’re stumbling.’” Sometimes with tutoring, he says, there's a risk of babying a student by simply showing them how to solve a problem. With Venkatraman, no such risk exists. “The students have to inquire, memorize, remember. With Vidya, they really develop those skills. And before you know it, that web of numbers and symbols and letters starts to unravel. They truly understand the concepts.”
According to the International Dyslexia Association, fifteen to twenty percent of the population as a whole lives with symptoms of dyslexia that range from slow or inaccurate reading, to poor spelling and writing, to mixing up similar words.
Showing her students that dyslexia and other learning impediments need not be immovable obstacles towards understanding has been an experience of empowerment for both Venkatraman and her students.
Venkatraman reflects, “I wanted to teach mathematical concepts to students in a way that would enable them to understand and become more confident...It is always rewarding when a student tells me that they have understood a concept they were struggling with. I like to see a smile on their face when they eventually get it.”
In life and math, there are positives and negatives. In life, at least, Venkatraman tends to focus on the positive. Eventually her blindness will progress to the point where glasses won’t help at all. She’s not worried, though. “I have my hearing, speech, touch,” she says. “My vision isn’t holding me back.” To her students, and anyone who needs to hear it, she says, “Don’t let this hold you back. You can do anything, you just have to do it a different way.”