LINCOLN SQUARE — Though just into her second year as a math teacher at St. Matthias School, Margot DiMuzio can already anticipate her students' most common question before they ask it.
"They want to know, 'How am I going to use this in the real world?'" DiMuzio said.
Her response: "You might not have to divide exponents past high school. But the process, the thinking, the checking, the reflecting — you'll use those every day without even thinking about it."
Once you know where to look for it, math is actually everywhere, said the youthful looking 24-year-old. ("I feel older but the kids think I'm a middle-schooler.")
Food preparation, calculating the tip at a restaurant, determining what time in the morning to set the alarm in order to make it to work on time — all math.
"I'm constantly thinking math," said DiMuzio, who plays number games with license plates when stuck in traffic and is addicted to Sudoku puzzles.
"I'm just a big math nerd," she said. "I just love it."
With a mom who works as a special education aide at Jamieson Elementary, a musician father who offers lessons on the side, and a tutor herself during high school, DiMuzio seemed destined for a career in teaching.
Instead, the Northside College Prep grad initially enrolled at Loyola University with the intention of majoring in ... forensic science.
"One day I had this epiphany — 'What are you doing?'" she recalled.
DiMuzio's love of algebra led her to choose the middle school years as her specialty. After earning her bachelor's degree, the life-long Lincoln Square resident was drawn to St. Matthias in part because her mom and aunt are alums but mostly because of the school's pending candidacy for an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme for sixth- through eighth-graders. (An authorization team will visit St. Matthias in April to make the final IB judgment.)
"It's very inquiry-based," DiMuzio said of the IB curriculum. "When I was a student, we sat in rows and listened to the teacher the whole time, and that's changed so much. I think in the past, things were presented as one way — 'You either get it, or we're moving on.'"
But the answer to 3+3 can be arrived at using methods that go beyond putting pencil to paper, she said, like, say, allowing a tactile learner to use physical objects to calculate the equation.
"I feel that I am able to relate the material very well to the students, to explain it in many different ways," she said. "Being able to reach any student — I pride myself on that."
A core component of her instruction technique are assignments called "challenge steps." For more complicated math problems, she asks students to write down each step of the process they used to work toward the solution. Ideally someone else should be able to follow these steps and reach the same conclusion.
"I've really seen it work with the seventh-graders," said DiMuzio. "My heart's full of joy when I see them getting these things."
These days, the number most relevant to DiMuzio is 350. That's the enrollment at St. Matthias, 4910 N. Claremont Ave., which has doubled in the past decade.
This year, with the school bursting at the seams, the middle-school classes were moved to DANK Haus, 4740 N. Western Ave. A $2 million capital campaign is under way to raise money for an addition to St. Matthias.
Students and teachers make the half-mile walk from DANK every afternoon so the youngsters can take part in recess and subjects such as art and music at St. Matthias' main campus.
"The kids have been real troopers," said DiMuzio, particularly given this winter's harsh weather.
Nearby Gordon Tech High School has come through with a bus on some of the coldest, snowiest days, she said, but otherwise, the trip has been made on foot.
"It's always, 'Get your boots on, put your hat on, make sure you have your book bag.' At the end of the day, I almost feel like we're herding cattle," DiMuzio laughed.
After spending eight hours a day with 12- to 14-year-olds, DiMuzio relaxes by coaching 12- to 14-year-olds at Sacred Heart Academy, a relationship she developed during a college work-study program. Over the summer, she works at Kids Playing Camp.
A glutton for punishment? Nah, DiMuzio said she just has a soft spot for middle schoolers.
"I think the age is great. It's awkward, it's fun, you get to see kids grow and develop," she said. "They're still sincere and they're still eager to learn."