Math Made Magic

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nemiroff's hands-on approach wows parents and students alike

by lydie raschka

fifth-grade teacher tracy nemiroff breaks the math nerd mold.

"she's not what you'd expect," said parent claudine may-gomez. "tiny, beautiful, little, pretty-and she loves math!"

but this math lover also has a reputation for being tough.

"i demand a lot. i give them really hard problems," nemiroff said.

"a lot of parents complain," may-gomez said. "'she's too hard,' 'there's too much homework,' but she doesn't care. she does what's best for the kids."

this does not mean letting her students fend for themselves, however. nemiroff answers emails after school if kids need help, has them practice for state and national math tests until test taking feels like a walk in the park and defuses math anxiety with singing, dancing and rapping-like the introductory rap she performs on the first day of school:

i'm from miami, so i'm used to the heat,

when the snow comes down, i get frozen feet.

on parents' night, nemiroff hands out a questionnaire. parent min miller took notice. never before had a teacher asked, "is your child afraid of math?" miller's daughter, maeve, was indeed a little afraid. she had been surprised to get 60 percent on her first math test of the year. many gifted kids enjoy good test scores and so had maeve, but nemiroff is interested in chipping away at the gifted child's tendency toward perfectionism.

"i want them to take risks, to know it's ok to make mistakes," she said. "it is what students do with their mistakes and struggles that defines them as learners and makes them most successful."

emphasis is placed on problem solving that draws on all of a child's accumulated math knowledge. for maeve, this teaching strategy has worked, and she's back in the 90 percent range.

"maeve has such confidence in math," miller said.

maeve adds, "ms. nemiroff makes it fun, like there's nothing to it, so you're not scared."

math inventions are one way of keeping it fun. student projects have included designs for a mathematical keyboard, an electric protractor, a digital ruler and a baseball mitt that measures speed upon impact. as a gifted child herself, nemiroff felt "pushed to make sure i got everything right." she wants her students to take chances.

"that's when i see them coming alive," she said. "that's when i see the most progress."

upon graduation from emory university, in atlanta, nemiroff moved to new york city with her fiancé. she taught at nest+m for two years before a slot opened up at the anderson school, where she's been for three years. she is a member of mensa, the organization for people with high iqs, and uses puzzles and problems from mensa's newsletters in her classroom. she is an advocate for gifted kids.

"often gifted kids get overlooked for the challenges they go through," she said.

"people think they have anything and everything given to them, but they have problems and pressures just like everyone else."

in spite of the rigor of her approach, nemiroff tries to keep math light and relevant with questions like, "why would derek jeter and david wright use the pythagorean theorem in their work?"

this summer, her math skills will be particularly relevant and handy as she, and her fiancé, plan their wedding.


tracy nemiroff

5th grade, the anderson school

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