Laurie Bass

3 Jul 2019
ByJulia Sonenshein, Assistant Director of Communications, Marketing

When Laurie Bass was 11 or 12, she sat down in front of a sewing machine for the first time in her home economics class. She placed her foot on the pedal and the machine sprung to life, feeling like a natural extension of her body. “I just took to it,” she says. “It was a happy thing.” Her first project was an apron — a “ridiculous,” pleated apron, in fact — that tied at the waist and left one’s chest exposed to spills. “It was pretty hilarious,” she recalls with a smile.

For a creative kid who was obsessed with math from an early age, sewing was a natural fit: pattern-making requires precision and careful formulations. She has continued sewing throughout her life, crafting quilts for her children, friends’ children, and now their grandchildren. It takes her between 20 and 30 hours to make each quilt — cutting fabric shapes, counting stitches, and calculating the dimensions on graph paper.

Sewing is just one of the many ways that Bass, an Upper School math teacher, sees the importance of math in daily life. She is passionate about the subject and tries to spark that same enthusiasm in her students. Her true love lies in theoretical math, what “real mathematicians do: they solve intriguing problems and let other folks figure out what practical applications those solutions might have.” She’s passionate about serving the smaller population of students who love math for the sheer joy of working through complicated concepts — as she does.

Math is not divorced from the world in which her students live — math is a way to make sense of the world around them.

To appeal to less ardent math students, Bass also teaches her students real-world applications of math equations, like predicting the likelihood of actually having HIV once a person has tested positive for the virus, and understanding how a person’s location can always be determined if they are carrying a cellphone, using triangulation. In her Algebra II class, during a unit on linear regression, students get to see the data correlating the outside temperature with the size of the O ring (a part) which ultimately caused the Challenger 2 disaster. Through the graph, one could clearly predict catastrophe on the cold day of the launch. Math is not divorced from the world in which her students live — math is a way to make sense of the world around them.

Bass uses the Socratic method in her teaching, bringing her classroom to life with student participation. “I believe that for anything you say, pretty much within one sentence, you should have a question you can throw back,” she says. It’s a way to keep the students constantly engaged, asking them to think critically and draw conclusions that go beyond their textbook. “There's really no rest in my class because at any moment, I could loop you into the discussion.”

Bass grew up in Orono, Maine, a tiny town that is home to the University of Maine, where Bass’s father was a professor of American History. She went to elementary school in a three-room schoolhouse, where she was a “very mathematically-oriented kid.” She knew she wanted to be a math teacher as early as the third grade, thinking to herself, “Why would I not want to be immersed in math all the time?”

When Bass was in fourth grade, her father took a leave from his post to focus on writing, and the family moved to New York City. It was the year of the World’s Fair (Bass went four times), and the family went to countless Yankees games, museums, and Broadway shows, starting a “lifelong addiction to Broadway.” When they reluctantly moved back to Maine a year later, Bass’s parents “looked at each other and said, ‘We have to get out of here.’” A year later, the family moved to Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. 

There, Bass was a diligent student, who also took ten additional hours of academic Hebrew school a week, which included studying poetry, the Talmud, and history. Even though it was academically rigorous, Bass says “it didn’t strike me as this difficult thing to be doing. I was doing what I wanted to be doing. I was doing it with good friends.”

She continued her advanced coursework in math but also became more serious about music and singing. Her senior year, she dropped history and language classes so she could pick up an extra math class and eight periods a week of music. “Really, I was feeding my soul.” (She has continued to sing all through her adult life in choruses and choirs.)

After high school, Bass headed to Brown University, where college-level math instruction proved to be a challenge. Sometimes the lectures would veer from making sense to utter gibberish, and professors wouldn’t stop to go back over concepts. But Bass was undaunted. “I loved the power of saying ‘I’m going to sit down, sort this out, and if I give it enough time and enough concentration, I will get this to make sense.’”

Math Teacher Laurie Bass works with a student on an equation.

At Brown, Bass was just as busy as she was in high school, getting involved with the campus Hillel, singing in the chorus, and doing folk dancing. She went to musicals and plays on campus, swam, and “was not a person who ever showed up at a football game.” Her senior year, Bass worked as a volunteer math teacher at a private school near Brown, and as she neared the end of her final year in college, she applied for teaching jobs in New York City. But in 1976, nobody could get hired without a masters degree in education. So Bass tried a different tack: She started applying for other math-related jobs and ended up as an actuarial trainee at a major firm. Two weeks in, she says “I realized I hated this above all things I had done in my life. It was just so, so boring.”

“I’ve always had a belief in being part of the bigger picture, being part of whatever the larger world would have to say about math.”

Bass attended Teachers College at Columbia University at night and eventually left her actuarial job to get her student teaching hours. In 1978, she began teaching at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, where, as a brand new teacher, she was assigned a staggering five different classes, requiring five different preparations. She was still juggling her second year of graduate school classwork, and the workload was overwhelming. When the chair of ECFS’s math department invited Bass to interview in the spring of 1979, she jumped at the opportunity, joining the school that fall.

While at ECFS, Bass has written multiple textbooks for Pearson, presented at numerous educational conferences, and has contributed to numerous math publications. “I’ve always had a belief in being part of the bigger picture, being part of whatever the larger world would have to say about math,” she says.

Bass has been a part of the ECFS community for 40 years. “The school saw me get married. The school saw me have kids. I’ve lived my whole adult life here,” she says. Decades spent at the school gives Bass a unique vantage point to see how things have changed, especially in the math department. Technology has opened up huge swaths of learning that weren’t available even ten or fifteen years ago, particularly with applications. She’s seen new computational aids, computers in the classroom, software, and even physical objects that bring math to life. But Bass cautions that convenience can come at a price: There’s a “noble goal of being able to do more stuff with kids, but the reality is that kids become overly dependent on their calculators.” Sometimes Bass walks around the classroom, taking calculators from students and encouraging them to do the computation themselves.

Bass’s method of teaching is likely to continue evolving — she’s a self-proclaimed “conference junkie” who’s always looking to learn new teaching ideas to inspire a love of math in her students. There’s new software to master and secure for the school, more grants to write so that she can fill her classroom with better software, and novel projects to introduce. “I know it's out there,” she says. It’s simply about patterning creative ideas and weaving them into her curriculum.