Head of Mathematics, Nicole Hamilton, Equates Student Success with Personalized Learning

Nicole Hamilton is committed to helping students achieve their highest potential by crafting a personalized approach to teaching math for every learner.

Nicole Hamilton is committed to helping students achieve their highest potential by crafting a personalized approach to teaching math for every learner. Ms. Hamilton, who has taught Middle and Upper School math at Dwight since 2006 — while also lending her musical and dance talents to a number of after-school programs — assumed the role of Head of Mathematics this year. We sat down with Ms. Hamilton, who teaches IB math, to learn about her winning formula for fostering appreciation for, and success in, the study of mathematics.

Where did your love for math come from and what about it excites you?

The way that math connects to everyday life has always held a lot of appeal for me. Thinking mathematically takes a lot of guesswork out of daily problem solving, and I find it exciting whenever I come across those connections.

What is your educational philosophy?

I believe that all students can and will learn, if provided with the right environment, tools, and encouragement. As a mathematics teacher, I want students to develop a growing appreciation for the subject. It saddens me whenever I hear a child say, "I can't do math," "I hate math," or "I will never need to know this stuff in the future!" Some may have been told at some point that they are not good math students, and unfortunately, many start to believe those negative messages.

To counteract this, I make it my priority to help students see the beauty and usefulness of mathematics! I try to erase students' preconceived notions that they are unable to do well. I accomplish this by designing my lessons and assessments so that all students are able to experience successes — both big and small — as long as they put forth sufficient effort.

Did you always want to be an educator?

When I was much younger, I would pretend to be a teacher; as a teenager, I tutored my peers. Yes, I think I was always meant to be an educator.

What makes Dwight's math department special?

Our teachers make every effort to cater to all of our students, providing each and every child with an appropriately challenging level of mathematics. We currently have 43 different math classes for students in grades 6-12!

How does Dwight's personalized learning pillar come to life in Middle and Upper School math classes?

Students are placed in classes according to their abilities and needs, not their grade level. For example, in one of our Geometry classes, we have students in grades 7-10.

Some students are also in one-on-one math classes with curricula designed specifically for their personal educational journey. For example, Dr. Beverly Soares, Upper School math teacher, teaches a student who is advanced in math and wants to pursue an alternate accelerated path of study.

Within each class, we focus on differentiation to ensure that we're meeting the needs of every student. In my classes, I know that I've accomplished the goal of differentiation effectively when everyone feels like they learned something that was accessible, and at the same time were appropriately challenged. When a student accomplishes a task easily during class, I'll have something more challenging and interesting waiting for him or her next time. If a student is stuck, I build upon his/her existing knowledge to overcome that challenge.

For me, ensuring a personalized approach lies in balancing the needs of each and every student during a given class period. I'm able to make this work by thoughtfully grouping students in classes and providing them with a rich set of resources, including digital tools, adaptive learning software, and one-on-one review time with our department's dedicated faculty.

You recently received a professional development grant from The Dwight School Foundation. What was it for and how did you bring that learning back to the classroom?

Last summer, a grant from The Dwight School Foundation provided me with the opportunity to attend the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference in Denver. It was an outstanding experience! I learned about so many amazing and innovative ways to bring technology into the classroom. For example, I discovered MathSpace, an adaptive learning software, which I've integrated into Middle School math classes this year. I also learned more about an online graphing calculator called Desmos, and have since created some fun and interesting projects for students in my classes on campus and online through Dwight Global classes. Have a look at my video about drawing with Desmos. And to read more about my experiences at the conference, check out my blog post.

Please tell us about innovations in the math department this year.

We started an after-school math help program for Middle School students. It started out with just one student and teacher working together after school, and has expanded so that now every chair in one of our biggest classrooms is filled with math teachers and students each week! Our department is thrilled with the success of this program and we look forward to developing it further.

Another exciting development is the rise of student participation in math competitions, facilitated by Dr. Soares; a record-breaking number of Dwight students took the challenging American Mathematics Competition (AMC) 10 and 12 exam this year! The AMC is a rigorous math contest, and those who pass the second round are invited to an international contest.

Our department has also worked closely with Dwight Global, to enable students to accelerate their studies in mathematics online.

You share your passion for dance and music with students, too! Tell us about that!

Last year, I combined my passions for music, dance, and math education to create an after-school program called Mathergy — in collaboration with Upper School math teacher, Yumi Lee — in which students and teachers collaborated to produce fun, energetic videos to share with struggling math students around the world. I hope to repackage the program and reintroduce it to our community again next year.

Outside of Mathergy, I share my love for music and dance with Dwight students and faculty who I wouldn't get to connect with otherwise. I'm a licensed Zumba instructor, for example, and I've led our Zumba after-school program.

What is your spark of genius?

One might imagine that it is math, music, or dance, but it's my passion for learning — and my eagerness to put myself in the vulnerable position of a learner each day — that I consider to be my spark.

What is a little-known fact about you?

I used to sing professionally! My music was a blend of soul and reggae. I released an album independently in 2010 and a music video in 2011. I decided to leave the music business shortly thereafter to focus primarily on my passion for math education at Dwight.
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