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Jonesboro teacher helps students overcome math-related stress

By Jeffery Whitfield

Nothing inspires Marilyn Curtain-Phillips more than watching a withdrawn student blossom into a confident pupil.

“When I see someone at the beginning of the year who is quiet and not participating in discussion become more confident later in the year, that makes me feel good,” said the Jonesboro resident.

A 16-year teaching veteran, Curtain-Phillips employs strategies to reduce anxiety among students taking math courses. She teaches about 145 students Algebra II at Jonesboro High School.

“So many people have a love-hate relationship with math,” said Curtain-Phillips, also author of magazine articles and “Math Attack: How to Reduce Math Anxiety in the Classroom.” The book was published in 1999. Curtain-Phillips has spoken at several conferences, including a regional one held by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics last month in Birmingham, Ala., about strategies with coping with math-related anxiety for teachers and students.

“The ways I teach everyday are things that I discuss in my book,” she said.

For example, Curtain-Phillips said she likes to emphasize using “budget-wise” methods for teaching such as spray painting lima beans for instruction about positive and negative numbers.

Reducing anxiety that students may have about mathematics is significant, she said, particularly because a growing number of jobs rely on math-related skills.

“The fastest jobs are being created in computer and health fields,” Curtain-Phillips said. “I want to stress to my students that [using math] is not something you can avoid.”

A major problem many students face is lacking the confidence for doing math problems - something she encourages students to overcome.

Students progress from elementary and middle school grades, where the foundation of math skills are taught, but they often encounter problems in high school courses, especially Algebra, where concepts may seem abstract, she said.

“A lot of times it's about getting in their thought process,” Curtain-Phillilps said, adding that she helps students work through difficulties by showing them several ways to approach solving math problems.

“Once people get more confident with [a way], that lessens the panic,” she said.

Dr. Donna McCarty, head of the department of psychology at Clayton State University, said students experiencing stress while taking exams often feel their body tense up and are unable to think clearly.

“It's sort of a cyclical process,” she said, adding that stress can leave students feeling as if they are having “tunnel vision” and unable to recall knowledge.

Learning relaxation techniques or studying meditation can help students cope with stress, McCarty said.

Curtain-Phillips said she hopes students are able to overcome their fears as well as focus on using other tools to work through problems.

One instrument she said students can use are calculators to help solve math problems on standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT, which allows their use.

“A calculator is not to be used as a crutch, but as a tool,” she said.

Curtain-Phillips said she hopes students would also use other means such as software programs, videos and computers to solve math problems.