Times are changing in education — and for the better, Fran McCrackin thinks.

The 30-year veteran elementary school teacher often does an exercise with her second graders: draw a picture of a scientist.

Her students used to draw portraits of white men in white coats. But no more.

“I see lots of test tubes. Lots of explosions — because they think that’s cool,” Fran says. “But you no longer have to teach girls that they can be astronauts.”

Fran has spent most of her career teaching 1st graders at Janney Elementary in Washington D.C. and currently teaches 1-3 grade science.

We heard so many of the kids say, ‘This is math?!’

Fran McCrackin

“My dad was a physicist and we had Scientific Americans sitting around our house. I would read them and do puzzles,” she says. That predisposition for the STEM fields led her to study anthropology in college – but a passion for math did not coincide with Fran’s interest in the sciences.

“I personally had a few bad math teachers,” she says. “It makes me sad to think of all the bad mathematics instruction back then.”

Even so, the curriculum has changed for the better. She recalls a teacher development course she took a few years ago with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The teachers physically built cubes to more effectively instruct how to cube numbers.

“Teachers in the room said, ‘Oh my god, why couldn’t I have been taught this way?’”

That tactile exercise made math come alive to Fran. It’s one of the reasons she loves the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival so much.

“The math festival is multi-sensory. The kids can walk on maze mats. Snap together cubes. Draw on dry erase boards. Move chess pieces. Play card games,” Fran says. “It’s very appealing to your senses, and then helps you discover the mathematics in the activities.”

Fran and friend Florence Fasanelli hosted two Julia Robinson Mathematics Festivals for 120 5th graders in 2018 and 2019.

“The JRMF structure is so inviting and welcoming, accessible, and enjoyable to every student. Out of the two festivals we hosted, we only had one student who didn’t find something to do.”

Fran is planning her third festival to take place in spring 2022. It will be the first one in three years because of COVID-19, and her last as a teacher. She is retiring at the end of the school year but wants to demonstrate to others how wonderful math festivals are so the tradition continues.

“We heard so many of the kids say, ‘This is math?!’ The activities stretch their ideas of what mathematics is,” Fran says. “I just love it.”