top of page

Episode 12: Teaching Math Online- An Interview with Theresa Wills

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Desiree Harrison 0:26

Our guest today is an assistant professor of math education at George Mason University, and is a sensational expert in synchronous online teaching, so welcome to the Kids Math Talk podcast, Dr. Theresa Wills.

Theresa Wills 0:43

Picture of the Book Teaching Math At a Distance by Theresa Wills
Use code "KMTSHIP" for FREE Shipping

Hi there, thanks for having me. Thanks for doing this for, you know, everyone, like, you know, every time we have someone doing something um and putting it out there, it helps bring us together. So thank you.

Desiree Harrison 0:54

Of course. Yes. So, I am a huge fan of Twitter...that's actually how we connected initially. I really hope that one day we are able to meet in person and continue the conversation that we're going to have today. Um, one of the really wonderful aspects of social media is how we are able to share our stories and our experiences and our resources without having met in person with people all over the world. And one narrative that I see on Twitter, ah, especially from people who are a part of the K-5 education world, is that math is the quote unquote most difficult to teach online, at least in comparison to reading and writing for instance. But as a synchronous online teacher, you have a different take on this. So, share with us a little bit about your unique background and the opportunities that are provided with synchronous online learning.

Dr. Theresa Wills

Theresa Wills 2:01

So I started this whole journey, ah... ten years ago. I was trying to figure out how I'm going to teach a math course to teachers, and they all lived very far away from me and from each other. So we decided to go online. But there were some non-negotiables that I was not willing to give up. Things like interaction, collaboration, having this productive struggle between teachers as we're thinking about mathematics, and also this sense of community. Um, and you know I actually used to play a lot of video games before I got into this, like a lot, and I knew that the gamer community was strong. I mean we would talk with people every single day. There were norms. There were things in there that made us best friends even though I never met them before. So I knew that existed and I wanted to bring that to the educational world.

Desiree Harrison 2:57

That's an interesting connection that you make, cuz I never thought about that. Like, growing up by brother played video games all the time and we used to connect that way and yeah there is a huge community so definitely.

Theresa Wills 3:09

And you know there's also norms too. Um, when you're playing either face to face with the game with somebody or you're playing over network there are certain times when you get up and go to the bathroom, like go take a break. There are certain times when you want to type in whatever chat box there is, or you want to use your microphone. And if you have 50 people from around the world coming together, those norms become more and more important and um you know people will happily abide by them because it's efficient, it a way of thinking of winning the game. Um, and so those same norms also come into the online classroom.

Desiree Harrison 3:45

Yeah, that's a very unique take. Is that how you decided that you wanted to, ah, be a part of George Mason University and a part of this program that they have?

Theresa Wills 3:55

Ah, so, I actually had been with Mason for awhile. I did the Math Specialists program as a Master's student. I was there for my Phd. And, um, I had adjunct with them for a long time before coming on as an assistant professor. So I actually had a long journey with Mason, um but what really got me into online learning is, you know, we were teaching these face to face classes and I was seeing so many teachers in the Northern Virginia area-traffic being an issue, being young parents an issue. And so you know when we started the online classes we found that people could access them easier, um people could be there you would otherwise would not have been able to be there or to take you know a year off, um, to you know take care of some family things but there were still able to be there um, and so it just became very accessible.

Desiree Harrison 4:50

Yeah, access and equity is always- those are big buzz words in education and you are an innovator. You're not just saying those words, you're, like, you really have found a system that works. And not just for those students who are enrolled in your university, but teachers all over the country, or, really all over the world potentially with these MATHurdays. So I had the pleasure of being a part of a live one a few weeks ago, and, but you don't have to - you still. have that access even if you're not able to join on Saturdays live but can you tell us more about what it is, how it came to be, and then how teachers can become involved.

Theresa Wills 5:39

Sure, ah, so there's two things that I loved in the math classroom. And I was a math coach for many years both in middle school and elementary school and I loved math routines and rich tasks. And I wanted to bring those in to the online space. That was another non-negotiable - I was not just going to lecture.

So MATHurdays came out of people said well how do you do that in an hour - that constantly came up in my face to face classes. So I would model it, and then we would work together. But in the online class you can record that, everything is live, anyone can see it at any time. But also I can model some of the time management. One of the things I like to focus on are problems that can be done in multiple grade levels, and part of that is when I was a math coach in the elementary grades I loved giving one problem at the school wide morning meeting and then each grade level did it with a slight tweak. And then the kindergarten kiddos, came up to the 1st grade class the 1st graders would like become little mentors with them and say this is what you get to do in 1st grade.

And then the kindergarteners would show their solution of the problem, the 1st graders would show their solution. And then you know another year and other time the 1st grader would go into the 2nd grade classroom and do the same thing. So it would build this school community together around this one problem to the point that even the cafeteria ladies were like how did you do that problem. They were all really into it. And so it brings up as a math educator I want teachers to think about learning progressions, I want them to think about tasks and access, and so time management time wise we do a math routine about 7 minutes long, and then we do 20 minutes of group time in the rich task and then we hold a discussion afterwards. And that's something if teachers can get that down, they're going to feel very powerful in their ah, online class.

So in MATHurdays- I'm not really doing anything new I'm taking ideas from other educators. Which One Doesn't Belong is a routine, Math Talks is a routine, Number Strings is a routine, but all I do is I think about the structures that take advantage of all the great things about online and show people how you can incorporate those structures. Same thing with, you know, with the math talks, when we have time to work on those interactive slides in small groups, I can go through, and I use the same ah, 5 practices that I would have done in the face to face class in order to the...discussions. So really MATHurdays is all about giving teachers more experience with routines and tasks, building their content knowledge, and also building their knowledge about how to transition this into an online space.

Desiree Harrison 8:35

Yeah, because teachers do leave with a new routine, a new idea for a task, they’ve had a collaboration opportunity with teachers all over the country, it's a free on demand PD, and you’re right, those norms, things that we might not be thinking about until we’re in the moment with our students you give the chance to practice and play around and we can make those mistakes with each other before we have to go into it with our kids so it doesn’t feel new for us even though online teaching is relatively new for the majority of teachers.

Theresa Wills 9:11

Um hmm, yeah.

Desiree Harrison 9:12

And I still say it’s innovative. I know you were saying that you’re just taking things that people have already done but you’re presenting them in a way that we haven’t seen before and it’s so needed because seeing is believing-always- but especially right now when we are just inundated with information coming from all directions and even if it’s in a graphic, you just don’t leave it static and your vetting the resources that put on your website in real time and it’s go appreciated.

Theresa Wills 9:48

I’m so glad you brought up mistakes! It’s my favorite word and I misspell it all the time on purpose, yeah, it's the highlight.

Desiree Harrison 9:56

Yeah I was just talking to some teachers and we were just talking about you have to be vulnerable - because nobody’s perfect you have to know that you’re going to make mistakes be willing to say I make mistakes so it’s really the only way we can survive in this profession.

I want to take a quick pause right here to let you know you can attend a MATHurdays which is the free PD session that Theresa Wills offers every Saturday at 12pm Eastern. All you have to do is head to her website,, that’s m-a-t-h, the play on the word Saturdays. And head to that website, click on the register, you get a free ticket, you get the email reminders, it’s a wonderful time, and if you can’t stay for the whole time or if there’s a session that you really want to attend and you’re not able to on a particular Saturday, she does record all the sessions and posts them to her website. Again talking about that access and equity piece.

Alright let’s get back to the interview.

As we move forward in this school year, more and more districts are returning to face to face learning while they’re still offering families choice of having some type of hybrid learning experience or to maintain the completely virtual learning environment. So at Kids Math Talk we are all about, ah, helping teachers connect, but also helping parents connect. So what tips do you have for parents as they’re helping their elementary child navigate online learning.

Theresa Wills 11:41

Sure, so my tip for parents is to let the kids make mistakes. Because what that does is it teaches troubleshooting with the technology and problem solving that us math teachers really want kids to have whenever possible. So I actually have a 2nd and a 3rd grader, um, and we celebrate making mistakes and the lessons learned all the time. In virtual learning, one of the things that I like to talk about is try three before me. So when my kids say, "Mom, I can’t hear my class." You know, I’ll usually respond with, "what are three things you’ve tried?" And even young kids can learn that, "okay what are three things I can do?" Oh, I can hit that refresh button that’s one thing, I can unplug and replug in my microphone, I can turn it on or off, I can restart my computer, I can refresh.

So what we want them to do is to start having ideas about what to do. Not a checklist- but ideas that are going to get them to be troubleshooters or problem solvers and, um, really bring that in to the tech world. And so you know whenever I have the opportunity we celebrate, you know, "oh that didn’t work but hey we learned what works and doesn’t work."

And you know really focus on making mistakes. And the other tip that I would say is let the kids do the typing and the clicking. As a parent, it is so easy for me to want to come in and just type it in and click here, here because I am efficient. But how did I get efficient?It's because I developed this problem solving and troubleshooting. And so I know even though I’m faster at this, that down the line if I want my kiddos a month from now to be independent-What am I going to do right now? And that means that I’m going to point at the screen or point, "here’s the letter y, it’s right here underneath the number 6." As opposed to actually typing it for them.

Desiree Harrison 13:42

Yes. Thank you for saying that because some days, my husband and I are taking our nieces and like we have them for the school day and that is difficult to remember sometimes because it is so easy like here, instead of just waiting for them for us to just click and get them on. But we definitely want to think about building independent learners instead of having dependent learners. Yes. That’s a great tip for everybody and not just while we’re in the online learning world that’s a great life skill to help instill.

Alright, so you’ve talked with us a little bit about the MATHurdays and you have your website that has all the PD recording available and lots of different Google Slide templates and Jamboard templates.

I work with elementary teachers and I have a curated list of digital resources for them to access and a lot of the links that are there take them to your site because it’s just like user friendly and you force the copy for them so they don’t have to worry about messing up anybody else’s information and they can end up making it their own you have the nice instruction template, or, instruction slide to begin so that anybody who might not be familiar with using Slides or Jamboard can easily adjust.

So all those pieces just help the math community and help teachers. So thank you again for that.

And we’re going to have another resource coming soon with a new book that in publication called Math At a Distance. Can you give a little sneak peak synopsis?

Theresa Wills 15:46

Absolutely! So that book is filled with tips and stories. So the tips are things like Math Routines, Rich Tasks, how to hold purposeful discussions online, how to make your students thinking visible, like come alive on the screen, um, things from like homework and assessments all the way to how on earth do I implement a breakout room for the first time. So these are all kind of all the tips and general how-tos but it’s also filled with stories. Uh, teachers and experiences that I have had over the years of doing this and I fill it with stories for the reason, the same reason, that I think about teaching math online is a lot like raising a child ah, so any of you parents out there or care givers know that no kid is exactly the same and even when I had my second child they were opposites in like everything so not only did they not follow the rule book about how to raise a baby but they were different from each other.

So what I’ve learned about online learning is that if you have this prescribed step like this is the way you have to do it -what it’s going to do is it’s going to make you feel very defeated like gosh I just can’t figure out this potty training thing everyone else has it figured out. But as soon as we start to just listen to other stories and realize what's going to work for us and what doesn’t and we start to put together our own recipe then we start to become empowered and we are successful because we’re using them more as stories instead of these prescribed steps. So I give a lot of different stories. I give kindergarten examples, calculus examples, and everything in between.

And that way teachers can find things that they like about it they go oh I do that and this is just one small step I can add to it and so when we find those entry points we’re empowered we’re successful and then we want to go back and find more. So it’s filled with vignettes of teachers doing it and then all of the resources in the books are already up on my website so people can start getting them now and interacting with them and making them your own.

Desiree Harrison 18:10

Wow. I can’t wait. That is exciting. So it’s due in November? Is that around-

Theresa Wills 18:17

It is... it’s coming out early November.

Desiree Harrison 18:21

Alright. We’re looking forward to it.

Theresa Wills 18:23

There’s kind of two messages that I'd really like to get out to teachers.

Desiree Harrison 18:26


Theresa Wills 18:27

Um, the two messages I have for teachers are to give yourself grace. To start small, try it out, learn what works for you and celebrate those successes. And then the other tip is to share your work. And don’t wait for it to be perfect. There’s somebody who chatted with me in early in March and said, “you know you gotta get it out there,” and I said, “well it’s not quite figured out yet there’s some holes and some stuff,” and they were like, “now well if you wait until it’s perfect it’s never going to be.” And so I’ve kind of embraced that-

I put the MATHurdays stuff out there, other recordings out there raw they’re not edited at all. And I do that purposefully because, you know, when people see it that way, they start to think, “oh I can do this too”, and so you know whether you are editing a slide or you recorded a PD that you’ve done, or you have a section of your class that, you know, doesn’t have any students names or voices in it at the moment just what you’re doing if you share that out that’s just going to give more to this body of knowledge and empower more teachers. Um, so give yourself grace, and share it even before it’s perfect.

Desiree Harrison 19:40

Thank you, two important messages that we need right now for sure. Thanks from the Kids Math Talk podcast. Again, thank you for your work. And your dedication to math education, especially in the elementary math world because oftentimes elementary math teachers and students get left behind. So we thank you for that and we’re hoping that you stay safe and we’ll talk to you soon.

Theresa Wills 20:10

Thanks for having me!

Desiree Harrison 20:11

Theresa Wills' book, Teaching Math at a Distance Grades K-12: A Practical Guide to Rich Remote Instruction is now available through Corwin Mathematics. Head to her website,, for book resources and for information about upcoming professional learning sessions.

147 views0 comments


bottom of page