Making Math Meaningful

GEMS Dubai American Academy

Students must be able to connect to learning for it to be meaningful. GEMS DAA math teacher Desirae Matthew conquered this challenge with a simple essential question: What do my students feel is important?

Their heartfelt responses helped Desirae align her own goals to thiers. Using the Fluencies, she helped them take responsibility for their learning and made math meaningful once more. This is their story.

The GEMS Dubai American Academy is a vibrant international community rooted in a culture of kindness that creates and empowers leaders and independent thinkers. DAA prepares students to lead successful lives through the diversity of its community and the extra-curricular experiences that contribute to the development of the whole person.

Working with Lee has been insightful and extremely helpful. He has been inspiring and supportive through this process.  I appreciate all that he has done to initiate this transformation and I look forward to learning more from him.

Desirae Matthew

The energy in the classroom has changed completely. We celebrate victories big and small. We evaluate methods and processes and incorporate reflection frequently. We are growing individually and together.

Desirae Matthew

What does it take to inspiremeaningful change?

Without relevance, there can be no learning. No matter how important the content is or the skills it builds are, our students won’t connect to what we teach if it isn’t somehow meaningful to them. Desirae Matthew, a math teacher at GEMS Dubai American Academy, knows this reality all too well. “I’ve taught math at many levels throughout my career,” Desirae explains. “While our topics have real-life applications, there is somewhat of a disconnect in finding the applications that are relevant and meaningful to the students.”

To get her learners excited and engaged, Desirae knew something had to change. Her exploration of the possibilities began with the ultimate tool for fostering authentic learning adventures: an essential question. She asked her students, “What is most important to you?” From here some truly powerful learning would begin to happen.

How do we plot a path to success?

The students’ responses to the question of importance included things like family, health, their futures, and more. “I was really impressed with how forward-focused their list was and how it included things such as understanding and balance,” recalls Desirae. This allowed her to realign her goals to better connect to those of her learners.

The next step was one that would help them take ownership of their learning. She separated the class and gave each group a standard to focus on. This is where elements of both Solution Fluency and Collaboration Fluency took center stage.

“They were able to define what the standard was asking for and also create their own examples of how they may see the standard in problem-solving situations,” says Desirae. “They were responsible for delegating their own tasks and organizing their roles to both create and present their examples.”

In addition to this, her learners also took initiatives to discover the most effective ways to teach the content to others. They learned that a concept you can teach is one you thoroughly understand. In the process, they gave the gift of understanding to others.

How do we measure growth and progress?



  • Students are collaborating, sharing ideas, and exploring different options.
  • They are truly engaged and excited about the next step in the class.
  • Students are acquiring skills for public speaking, teaching, collaboration, accountability, and more.
  • Students have greater responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it.


  • The Fluencies provide a framework for teachers to act as facilitators of student learning, allowing the students themselves to take the lead.
  • Teachers are seeing the lessons really stick with their learners as they take ownership of learning.
  • The Fluencies processes allow teachers to connect content topics to students’ personal interests and increase student engagement.


  • There is an incredible amount of learning happening for the students and teachers, which extends beyond the content-related material.
  • There is a deeper culture of collaboration between students and teachers as well as between the teachers themselves.
  • Students are more empowered to adjust their own lifestyles to develop solutions for real-world problems that matter.

How do we continue to improve and excel?

As Desirae and her learners debriefed on their experiences, she herself marvels at the transformation that has happened in her students, and also in herself. “Initially there was some push-back from the students. The changes were new for all of us and they were dubious about this new process,” she says. “I have witnessed students begin asking higher order questions more frequently, and interacting with each other in positive and supportive ways.”

Desirae is also thrilled about the collaborative aspect of learning that a truly interactive classroom provides. “When presented with a challenge, we now figure out how to overcome it as a class,” she claims. “We work as one unit where each member contributes in a unique way.”

Moving forward is an even more exciting prospect for Desirae and her learners. “My students and I will continue to roll out the Fluencies and look for more ways to develop our learning in the classroom,” she says. “We are growing individually and together.”

Let’s take the next steps together.

Want to usher in whole-school transformation and professional growth? We’re ready if you are.