Math is the universal language, and fourth-grade teacher Iris Van Dyke knows how to crunch the numbers.
Van Dyke, who teaches at White Oak Elementary School in Westlake Village, returned from a December teaching conference in Shanghai where she spoke to Chinese educators on a series of topics, including math.
She was asked to make a presentation by the conference’s organizer, who saw her speak at a session in San Diego last March.
On the trip to China, the farthest she’s ever traveled from home, Van Dyke spoke to teachers about ways to help their students learn math more effectively and how to make the classroom a positive, communal space. She also took part in a Q&A session.
“The people were just the kindest and most passionate and most giving people I’ve encountered. They were so enthusiastic about learning new things about education.
They asked really great questions, worked really hard to make me feel welcome,” Van Dyke said. “They really respect teachers, and I’m lucky to work in (Las Virgenes Unified School District), which also really respects teachers. It was great to have that on both sides of the world.”
As part of her White Oak math curriculum, Van Dyke incorporates physical activity into her classes to help students understand the subject better.
“The class is called ‘I like to move it, move it . . . in math.’ It’s fun,” Van Dyke said. “It didn’t translate as well but the teachers still liked it. For that one I present a lot of research on the cognitive benefits of exercise. Then I show a lot of math games that I’ve made up that incorporate physical activity.”
One of her methods is to have students stand on one foot and count the sum of an addition problem, then switch feet and count the answer to a multiplication equation that has the same outcome, to show how the two problems are equivalents.
Van Dyke said that as a student she was often “brought to tears” by mathematics, so when she became a teacher she developed a program to help her students understand the subject matter.
“I noticed early in my career that elementary students do best when they’re moving. I thought, why not combine movement and math?” Van Dyke said. “I started making up games and songs with hand motions. That way, as they’re learning, they’re involving their body and their brain.”
She also spoke to educators about how to make their students feel safer in the classroom—and not just physically. For students to learn, they have to be in a safe environment where it’s okay to make mistakes, Van Dyke said.
“I presented on building a classroom using trauma-informed practices,” Van Dyke said. “We, as educators, can’t know every student’s background, so it’s important to give them a safe and loving environment at school because you don’t necessarily know if they are having that elsewhere.”
Van Dyke holds a Master of Education in curriculum and instruction, which she earned from the American College of Education last May. As part of the program she researched the long- and short-term impacts of childhood trauma and strategies teachers can use to help their students cope.
She said she’d repeat the entire China experience “in a heartbeat.” The organizers let her bring her husband to Shanghai, where they celebrated his birthday.
“During one of the workshops, the entire audience of teachers stood up and sang him ‘Happy Birthday.’ It was very sweet,” Van Dyke said.
She said she felt grateful to the school district for encouraging her to take the opportunity to travel so far. The conference in Shanghai was Van Dyke’s fourth, and she’s already scheduled to speak at two more.
“It’s something I’m passionate about. I feel like so many people mentored me when I was a newer teacher and continue to, so I want to give back and help other teachers as well,” she said.