Making lemonade

A service project pairs undergraduate math students with elementary and middle school students. Their recipe for success.

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

Making lemonade


In Spring 2020, everybody associated with education was scrambling to meet the needs of our learners. Teacher education programs in higher education were no exception. Like many other industries and disciplines, faculty in education departments at colleges and universities across the country were making a fast switch from face-to-face instruction to a virtual world. At Messiah University, we chose to make figurative “lemonade.” Here is the recipe: 

  • Take one undergraduate Math methods class of competent juniors. Squeeze well
  • Stir in one entire missed Service Day opportunity 
  • Add ample anxiety about Math in society at large
  • Fold in a handful of nervous parents who are now responsible for teaching their child
  • Combine with enthusiasm and support until saturated
  • Sprinkle with technology to taste

To me, at least, it felt like that was how we stirred up a successful virtual support project lemonade in the midst of the start of the Covid crisis.

In March 2020, seemingly overnight we went from hearing of the coronavirus to full on virtual learning across the nation. This included every student from pre-school to post-secondary with rare exception. Immediately, social media began to explode with posts from math-anxious parents who were ill-prepared to support math instruction for their child. 

With the urgent switch to remote teaching and learning came the cancellation of Service Day, a hallmark of Messiah University. With the help of students in “Math: Climate, Curriculum, and Instruction II,” a junior level class associated with field experience, we quickly combined all of the ingredients of this crisis which, taken alone, could be overwhelming. But stirred together, they resulted in one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career. We were taking on our own service project.

Students in this class were charged with finding someone with a child in grades 3-8 that needed math assistance. Next, they needed to find out what the need was, and address it through virtual support. Those were the basic parameters: grade 3-8 math, need, virtual support. The rest was mostly left to the ambitions and creativity of the students. 

It was truly inspirational how Messiah University students rose to the occasion and responded with empathy to help their neighbor. With permission, some students helped parents who were educators themselves, but who could use assistance helping their class virtually. After all, this was new, challenging, and somewhat threatening territory for them, as well.  Others helped younger siblings, cousins, or family friends to navigate the world of virtual learning. Still others were referred to children they had never met but who they were eager and willing to help. Some Messiah students met with their new virtual math students using ZOOM or other virtual meeting programs. I read that some students developed videos to teach concepts while others found YouTube videos to address certain skills. The variety of perspectives from which the assignment was tackled was equally as amazing as the ingenious and imaginative resources provided to address the need. 

This project represents a learning experience for all involved. When put to the test, we find that we can do wonderful things that we did not know we could do. Sarah Haverstick, a student in this class provides some insight into her experience.

What…? HOW am I going to do this? Those were the initial thoughts running through my mind the assignment was announced. Sure, I thought it was a brilliant idea, but fear spoke lies of inadequacy, and I doubted my ability to do it effectively. Then I hit pause, rewound, and revised those thoughts: Okay, wow, what an opportunity! That became my new mindset and motivation. With the beginning of a pandemic at hand, it was time for us to put all that we had learned into action. No longer would I just be learning about the importance of creativity, innovation, flexibility, personalized instruction, and technology; I would actually put those teaching skills into action through a novel assignment. This was a chance to mingle my love of teaching with my love for service in a way that would grow my ability to teach in a modern, technology-driven world. 

Who? That was my first question. Who was I going to pick? Abiding by the parameters of the assignment, I knew that the student would need to be in grades 3-8, so I immediately thought of one of the children in my neighborhood that I have babysat since he was in preschool. 

What? Once it was confirmed that this student was interested in receiving some virtual support with his math learning, my mind jumped to this question. What would I teach him? My natural reflex was to pull up the Pennsylvania State Standards. Perusing those pages gave me some sense of what math content a fourth grader would be engaging in. Supplementing this information with input from my student’s mother and classroom teacher gave me more direction with what I would focus on.

How? The question every educator is eager to delve into. How will I actually teach this material? For me, this was the most intimidating part. I am fairly confident when it comes to teaching in a physical classroom, but online education was new and intimidating. Historically, technology is not something intuitive for me, so I knew that I would be stretched out of my comfort zone when it came to virtual instruction. I gathered all of the resources I knew of and began immersing myself in the new experience  — reading through my textbooks, searching for articles, and exploring online activities. 

As the natural progression of these three questions materialized into personalized video lessons and activities for my student, I realized that this was the same process of intentional instructional design. Teaching becomes deeply meaningful when the audience is considered (who), when it is driven by specific learning goals (what) and is crafted for the unique needs of every student (how). Although this assignment was a new context for application, it was guided by the same principles that equip me to foster engaging and effective lessons. 

What began as something daunting became a beautiful growing experience. I enjoyed the process of facing a challenge head on with the desire to serve my community and strengthen my pedagogy. It was rewarding to extend my student’s math experience with personalized problems and to see the excitement illuminate his face every time we talked about his learning. I missed being able to be there when the student is learning — to answer any immediate questions, and to experience the joy of the moment everything seems to click — but it was a new kind of incredible to see the power technology can have in a crisis. It was sometimes challenging to think about demonstrations and manipulatives that I could provide in such a limited setting, however, it was rewarding when each element fell into place. Serving someone in the community through virtual math support was exactly what we all needed during this crazy time. 

The student and community response was as refreshing as a cool glass of lemonade!

Carol Buckley is an associate professor of mathematics at Messiah University in Pennsylvania.

Sarah Haverstick is a senior education major at Messiah University.  


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