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“Mathy Cathy” Yenca: Why visual learning matters for math

Dec 1, 2020

Cathy Yenca

Photo credit: Courtesy of Cathy Yenca

Cathy Yenca, author of the Mathy Cathy blog, is the kind of teacher you hope your kid gets to learn from. The Austin, Texas-based math teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator has built her career combining a maker’s creativity with a passion for technology. When the pandemic hit, she adapted by using digital tools like mmhmm to enhance not just her crystal-clear visual math lessons, but also how she communicates with parents. We asked her about how she crafts her lessons, what’s changed for her since March, and how she’s putting the cool back in school to make remote learning as engaging as IRL.  

Are you teaching middle school? And how did you start creating curriculum for different digital platforms?

Yes ma’am! I have sixth, seventh and eighth graders that I’m teaching virtually right now. I take a lot of joy in creating, so combining the creativity of technology tools with teaching kids is kind of my sweet spot. I'm always one of those early adopters. Let me try this thing that may or may not be designed for education and figure out how I can use it to design cool stuff, and possibly teach math to kids. 

Cathy Yenca's math class

Photo credit: Courtesy of Cathy Yenca

How did you find mmhmm?

I learn everything on Twitter. A friend just happened to tweet about mmhmm in my math teacher community. I saw the demo video and I went absolutely bonkers! In this time, seeing material digitally as well as seeing that human touch is so critical. I applied for the beta and crossed my fingers and toes. The day I got beta access I just experimented, made my first video, and tweeted it out.

I take a lot of joy in creating, so combining the creativity of technology tools with teaching kids is kind of my sweet spot.

What are the ways that you can represent math visually? Does putting things into images and videos help kids learn better?

Oh my gosh, I'm so glad you asked that question because the visual component of math really helps concepts stick. Sometimes if kids don't understand an idea in the abstract, if there's a way you can show it visually, it really helps kids learn. I'm an Apple Keynote junkie. Keynote is my jam. And that's where I'm looking ahead to continue these mmhmm updates, because I rely really heavily on Keynote’s magic move animation and shapes on a slide.

I’ve done a little bit in the browser realm with a really cool free tool out there that’s web-based called Desmos. It's a free graphing app. If I just screen share my browser, I can make a video where I do graphy things beside me. That’s the power of mmhmm: You’re getting people’s attention. It’s really different. 

I also sent e-mails this week talking parents through all the nuts and bolts of start-of-the-school-year stuff, and I chose to create an informational video using mmhmm. It was cool to get feedback from parents saying, “Wow, I was really impressed with that video.” When you open that video and start playing it, you've got their attention right away. It's not just a talking head on a typical video; it's the surprise that makes it so fun.

How has your work changed during the pandemic? Were you doing some online teaching before this, or this is the first year that you've taken things virtual? 

Back in March when all this happened we all went into kind of that crash-course, emergency, slap-it-together teaching overnight. That was tough because it was new, but at the same time I already knew the kids really well. The relational side of it was quite easy because we already had all these goofy things we did in the classroom, and we just tried to keep doing them in this virtual-learning environment. 

This fall feels a little different. We're meeting with every class every day. We're following almost a traditional in-building bell schedule, even though we've been, so far, fully remote. I feel like this fall we're not just in crisis-mode teaching, and we're holding the expectations a bit more like “normal” school.

Thank you for taking the time to tell us your story.

I feel like sharing some positivity using creative tools is what the world needs. Not every family is thrilled that this is how education looks right now, so give me any opportunity to share something that's really cool and fun, and I'm all in. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.