We sat down with 6th Grade Math Teacher Kenzie Brownsmith to find out about her background, teaching philosophy, and her first impression of Westridge. She has a B.A. in Urban Environmental Policy from Occidental College and multiple subject teaching credentials from CalStateTEACH. Kenzie's wife, Val Brownsmith, teaches Middle School mathematics here at Westridge.
Tell me about your background.
I've been teaching for five years at Aveson Charter School, the last few in a hybrid independent study program called Flex. I've taught math, science, history, and even some PE and Spanish, which was fun. Before that, I was at Caltech in the undergraduate admissions office, visiting high schools, reading applications, and helping the team make decisions about which students would do well there.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I try to make sure that I'm facilitating as much student-centered learning as possible. They’ll remember what they come up with on their own much longer than anything I teach them. Students are so good at naturally discovering things, so I try to turn the classroom into a discovery hub for them to build their skills and understanding, while having some fun along the way.
How do you get students engaged in math class?
We start with empowerment. We start with the idea that “you probably know the right answer if you really think about it and explore,” and the rest is just formal tools. The goal is to present problems that can be accessed at different levels. I think really rich math learning doesn't come from speed, it comes to being able to dive really deep. I find it hilarious when students say “I totally understand fractions” because that is such a complex topic that is revisited in different and interesting ways all the way through college math. If you think you understood everything, we're not asking you to go into depth enough. There’s always more. And I think that's the challenge. I'm excited about building thinking with our students.
Why did you choose to teach 6th grade?
I love 6th grade. When I was working in admissions at Caltech I wanted to see more people of color and underrepresented genders going into math and science at the top levels, but I was horrified at the lack of strong applicants. And when I dug into the research, it's in part because so many lose confidence around this age group. Something happens between 3rd and 8th grade where people stop seeing themselves in the STEM fields. I started teaching this age group because if students start to take the backseat now in 6th grade, I want to be there to say, “come up to the front again.” And at Westridge I see that kind of encouragement from all directions – from teachers, from staff, from peers – it’s truly part of our culture.
Do you have a favorite lesson so far?
I worked with the kitchen to do a potion lab with Italian sodas and dry ice for Halloween. Ratios and fractions really come alive with food because there's a good reason to break things into parts and doubling recipes. Incorporating games and real-world situations really helps keep everyone engaged.
What is your first impression of Westridge?
I love it. The kids are amazing. The way that they think, question, and encourage each other has really blown me away. Their work ethic is strong, they’re creative and hilarious, and it’s been so much fun math-ing with them.
What is your first impression of an all-girls school?
I’ve never been in a single-sex environment before but was very excited to be part of an institution so committed to inspiring women. I appreciate the intentionality of inclusion and leadership training for students here. I believe it can’t be just about not having boys, but instead really purposefully how we are encouraging leaders. I think Westridge is a great environment for these students to discover who they are and build strong voices. As a trans, non-binary person I was at first a bit unsure how I would fit into all-girls school, but I have felt entirely welcome here. It has been incredible to feel this seen. I go by Mx. Brownsmith (instead of Mr. or Mrs.), pronounced like you “mix” a salad.
What do you like to do for fun?
Right now, play with my baby. They’re 5 months old and full of giggles. But I also love being outside hiking, swimming, doing crossword puzzles, and playing board games. I like “Pandemic” and that whole world of cooperative games. Basically, I like playing any game that I can't figure out how to win right away.
Is there an interesting fact about you that you'd like to share?
I was in the circus growing up. I was raised at the circus.
…would you like to expand on that?
I joined when I was four years old. I mostly did trapezes, but I dabbled in everything from unicycle to juggling.
…of your own volition?
No, so the story goes that we moved into a new house when I was four and one day my mom looked out to see that I had climbed the tree to be at the same height as her second-floor window. She freaked out, and then saw that there was a youth circus starting and thought “we'd better harness this for good.” And it was awesome. It was an after-school sport that was cooperative, not competitive. And I got to be physical without having to win – just putting on a show together was awesome. And then I stopped when I was around 15 mostly because I hurt myself after jumping 40 feet off the trapeze a few times every week. But I'm fine, everything's ok!