Cedar Rapids educator defines struggle for excellence

McKinley Middle School teacher among finalists for coveted award

Gabby Granadillo talks about the struggles involved in learning math in her eighth grade pre-algebra class at McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Granadillo likes to emphasize the importance of making mistakes and learning from them in the classroom. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Gabby Granadillo talks about the struggles involved in learning math in her eighth grade pre-algebra class at McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Granadillo likes to emphasize the importance of making mistakes and learning from them in the classroom. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Gabby Granadillo wants her students to make mistakes in her middle school math classes.

“A mistake is not the end,” the McKinley Middle School teacher said. “That’s the moment learning really starts. If you don’t make mistakes, then you know everything. And then you are not learning.”

For the past eight years, Granadillo, 47, has taught math at the Cedar Rapids school. There, she said, she tries to create a classroom that “values questions and mistakes.”

The approach helped Granadillo last week earn a spot as one of four Iowa finalists for a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

The award is the nation’s highest honor for math and science teachers, according to an Iowa Department of Education news release.

When students asked Granadillo about the Presidential Award for Excellence nomination during a class Thursday, she was quick to turn it into a lesson.

What, she asked students, does excellence mean?

“You’re good at what you do, and you make it fun to learn,” Reid Ortiz, 13, said.

Not quite.

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“What do we do to be excellent?” Granadillo asked again. “Not just me teaching, what I do everyday, but what about you?”

To be excellent, “you need to struggle,” Preston Bouschlicher, 13, said.

“Boom!” Granadillo said, boisterous and grinning. “If everything is easy, are we working our brains? No.”

That’s an attitude she carries throughout her teaching. Students aren’t working independently, for example, but also “struggling by themselves.”

It’s something Granadillo applies to herself as well. Originally from Venezuela, she likes to tell students it might take her longer to write a letter in perfect English — but she can do it. It just takes effort.

She wants her students to have ownership of their education, she said, and to know what they do and don’t know.

If they know that — and don’t hide it — they can truly improve.

“If you have a mistake, it’s fine,” one of her students, Rob Campshure, 13, said. “You just need to work on it. There’s no pressure on you to fix everything.”

That approach gets through to students, Anna Neumann, 13, said. She didn’t like math before Granadillo.

Now, “it’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge I like,” Anna said. “She gives us really hard problems. She doesn’t get mad if we make mistakes, she just helps us.

“And there are a lot of mistakes,” she added.

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At a group of desks nearby, one girl grew frustrated with a math problem. I’m not smart, she mumbled.

Granadillo swept in, supportive and helpful.

“Do you have a brain? Can your brain grow?” she asked, as the girl nodded. “That’s all you need. Hey, don’t say that again, that you are not smart.”

Other nominated Iowa educators are Rachel Giesmann, Mediapolis High School; Mike Todd, Ames High School; and Mike Wedge, Sibley-Ocheyedan High School.

The National Science Foundation administers the awards on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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