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June 16, 2020 | Abby Liu
After 28 years of teaching middle school math at Mustard Seed School, Gary Lawrence will retire at the end of this school year. Mr. Lawrence has also served as the Coleman Fung Chair for Mathematics, Director of Finance, a member of the Leadership Team, and has often been at the forefront of fundraising, assisting with two capital campaigns. We’re grateful for his love of math, and his deep dedication to his students as well as the mission of the school. A popular presenter, he’s been called the “Bon Jovi” of math conferences. Mr. Lawrence, we’re going to miss you!
From the day I first learned about it, I believed in the mission of Mustard Seed. It was fulfilling the need for excellent education in an area that was underserved during the 1970’s and 80’s. I loved what I had seen of the school when we were searching for a school for our daughters. And some of our favorite new friends, the people we most admired, were teachers at Mustard Seed. I wanted to be a part of the mission and make a difference in the lives of students.
Over the years, I’ve honed my craft alongside outstanding educators. Along with Dr. Hoyun Cho, who did some of his doctoral teaching work at MSS, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at math conferences around the world. Together we share the good work that’s happening in a small PK-8th grade school in Hoboken. Our techniques now benefit children in many different kinds of schools–public, independent, secular, religious. I’m proud of this work.
I love it when a math skeptic turns into a math enthusiast. I was recently speaking with an 8th grade student who has struggled with math over the years. She told me that her math exhibition was her favorite of the eight exhibitions that are a part of the graduation requirement. And math has become her favorite subject. I was so surprised! Math has never come easily to her. But we’ve supported her and she’s worked hard. She’s grown confident and she can see the beauty in the work of problem solving.
We’ve had two primary goals for math education in the middle school since 2007: to develop persistent, creative problem solvers. And to build a positive “math culture.” This would be a culture where you might hear students entering the building in the morning, climbing the stairs, and talking about an interesting math problem they had done the night before.
One idea that really took off and grew is I LOVE Math Day, celebrated on or close to February 14. In the month before I LOVE Math Day, we challenge students to produce work that’s worth celebrating. We give them math problems that are meaningful, that take time to solve. We make it fun, mildly competitive, intentionally cooperative, and have it involve art or performance. Then on I LOVE Math Day, students present their work and we celebrate. And we also have other ways to mark the day: a panel of math experts join us to speak about how they use math in their lives. We play games. And of course, we have treats and prizes.
If I have success with middle school math students, it’s because I get to build on the amazing work of Mustard Seed’s teachers at all the earlier grade levels. Students arrive in my seventh grade classes knowing the fundamentals. They come having spent years using some of the best materials and manipulatives. Guided by some of the most insightful teachers that I have known. They come with a rich academic and intellectual background. An appreciation for art and the power of a picture or a 3-D object. A rich musical background which nourishes all kinds of mathematical thinking, including some obvious things like an understanding of fractions. They have good academic habits and mindsets that make all of schooling easier and more fulfilling. They’re good readers and writers and speakers. They’ve learned how to communicate well. All of this contributes to their success as mathematicians.
At its best, math is interesting, fascinating, and joyful. It meets a deep need for understanding and logic. In God’s infinite wisdom, we were created to see patterns. We were created to think about numbers and to count. We were created to “know”, and mathematical “knowing” is one of the important ways we “know” anything. Deep down, we know when we have proven something to be true, and that lasts a lifetime. No one can take it away. It’s not an opinion. It’s not information conveyed by an outside expert. I can know it for myself.
Immediately I think about what has stayed the same. The core mission has remained the same. Caring deeply and passionately about children and their needs. We see children as children of God who deserve the very best in terms of developing the whole child. Regardless of their life circumstances. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the commitment and the passion of the staff, by God’s grace. The more I consider what’s changed, the more I think about what’s stayed the same.
Mustard Seed School has meant the world to me and my family. We loved watching our girls as they grew up attending Mustard Seed School. We love what it’s meant to them over the years. My hope is the school continues to be a wonderful blessing for more and more children into the future. And that the faculty would be able to share their knowledge with more educators.
When we get past our social distancing season, I hope to swim. My wife, Lori, and I would like to visit our family more frequently and for longer periods. I plan to read more math books. I’m hoping that Mr. Choi and other teachers will welcome me into their classrooms from time-to-time to share my love of creative, persistent problem-solving. I also look forward to continuing to present at math conferences with Dr. Hoyun Cho.