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Episode 8 - Through the Math Forest

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It was with some trepidation that we walked into Math 2 class at Pocahontas County High School in January right after the winter break. Math has a history of causing the cold sweats, anxiety and resignation to the fact that it's just going to be unpleasant. But we were mostly too excited to worry about that.

Laurel Dilley teaches her Math 2 class.

West Virginia University alumna Laurel Dilley was recently named West Virginia's high school math teacher of the year. As she taught her Math 2 and computer science class (pictured), she helped the students to question what they knew and how new information fit into their conception of math. (Photographs by Raymond Thompson Jr.)

We had heard that there was this school district in the heart of West Virginia that had just shown incredible progress in math, going from the middle of the pack in math proficiency to eighth-graders and 11th-graders leading the state in math proficiency, on par with the most proficient states in the nation.

Was it real? How did it happen? And what did this look like? All we knew was a vague description of the numbers. But then we met the people.

Joanna Burt-Kinderman teaches elementary school students.
Joanna Burt-Kinderman, math coach for Pocahontas County, W.Va., says her best days are in the classroom, learning with students and teachers.

Joanna Burt-Kinderman, MS ’15, Higher Education Teaching and Learning, started working as a math coach for Pocahontas County Schools. She started small, pitching the idea to the district, got a little funding, and worked with a few teachers on the idea that they could have conversations about math that would change the math experience for their students.

It's been seven years and they've been able to retain math teachers, something that's hard to do because of the demand for their skills and opportunities for higher pay outside of teaching. High school and eighth-grade proficiency rates on the Smarter Balanced test jumped in 2017. But the biggest tangible takeaway was that teachers and students were picking up math and testing it out. They were thinking about it as a guide to make logical decisions and learn processes together. Burt-Kinderman says that this open-ended approach is going to be important as students move toward a job market that will be populated with jobs that don't exist right now.

Brian Smith works with his students and Joanna Burt-Kinderman. Brian Smith, a WVU alumnus, develops math games for his students. The day we visited, they were showing Ms. BK how to play a Go Fish factoring game.

We also discovered that math can be fun. The fourth-graders at Marlinton Elementary School could not wait to show Ms. BK their Go Fish factor game. They had to ask for cards that contained factors of another number, such as 12. They may or may not have held back some cards with relevant numbers. The stakes are high in math class.

At Pocahontas County High School, we saw high schoolers manipulate code in Python to answer a Pythagorean triple question. It required creativity and conversation about setting ranges and keeping the code clean, and it prompted healthy debate with Dilley about whose way was best.

This story required the Sparked team to do some math of our own. If you want to see how your district or state stacks up in math, we’ve gathered a ton of information.

How does the U.S. compare in math proficiency to the rest of the world? We’re below average. You can also see this 2015 data in a Pew Research Center analysis.

You can find your state math proficiency at The Nation’s Report Card broken down by grade level.

Here’s how West Virginia counties scored in math proficiency in 2017. You can dig into the data by year, grade, district, school and population groups.

Map of math proficiency by district in West Virginia in 2017.

The Percentage of children in eighth grade who are proficient in math in 2017 by district in West Virginia. The darker the blue the more proficient in math a district's students are. (Data Source: ZoomWV Data Dashboard, WV Department of Education. Graphic by Elizabeth Ford).

As we drove away from Pocahontas County, we wondered how math could look for kids outside of Pocahontas County, one of the most rural counties east of the Mississippi River. (Really, you can't get much more rural unless you're in Maine or the Adirondacks in New York, according to the USDA).

If they can do this here, what can we do in other places to give math the attention it deserves? Ms. BK thinks Pocahontas County has yet to reach it's math limits. She's only started formally working with elementary school teachers in the last year. So stay tuned.

Marlinton Elementary School.
Marlinton Elementary School, one of five schools in Pocahontas County, W.Va.

A big thank you this episode to Joanna Burt-Kinderman, Laurel Dilley, Brian Smith, Pocahontas County Schools and the students who let us shadow them.

You can connect with Burt-Kinderman at her website,

Sparked is produced by Raymond Thompson Jr. and Diana Mazzella at West Virginia University, located in Morgantown, W.Va.

Tell us your math experiences in the comments below or email us at