Remembering Mary Jane


For the past few weeks, I have been collecting and organizing pictures of Mary Jane for a celebration of her life at COABE in Denver. This process has made me appreciate even fuller the legacy of the feisty blonde, Mary Jane Schmitt. A lyric from the song “Maria” in the The Sound of Music keeps resonating in my head: “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” That was Mary Jane, on the go, energizing, and larger than life.

I first learned of Mary Jane Schmitt at my state’s conference in 1988. She was passionate about looking at the formula page on the then “new GED” and making connections for our students. Later our paths crossed again when I attended MCAE and Mary Jane’s math team did day long presentations on teaching conceptually. I was hooked. Later Mary Jane asked me to attend the First National Conference on Adult Mathematical Literacy held in Arlington, VA in March 1994 that she had organized with Iddo Gal. The purpose was to have teachers, stakeholders, researchers and policy makers really deliberate and discuss the importance of adult numeracy and to start to make changes in policy around adult math education. She even had various senators attend, Paul Simon for one, and from that summit the Adult Numeracy Network was formed that continues 20 years later. Mary Jane’s impact on the adult numeracy field was and continues to be felt across the country.

As we honor this great lady, her impact on the adult numeracy field is astounding. She has coauthored many publications including The Components of Numeracy and A framework for adult numeracy standards: The mathematical skills and abilities adults need to be equipped for the future. At TERC she was lead investigator and developer of several projects: Teachers Investigating Adult Numeracy (TIAN); Adult Numeracy Instruction (ANI); Statistics for Action (SfA); and her proudest accomplishment EMPower: Extending Mathematical Power book series. I say proudest because Mary Jane’s drive and her passion were for our adult education students. She was fond of saying that second-chance students deserve a first-rate education, and she lived this motto whole-heartedly.

However while these accolades are worth remembering, that is not what endeared us to this wonderful person. Mary Jane had a laugh and a smile that were infectious. Meet her for the first time and you thought you had been friends for a lifetime. She always made new teachers in the field feel a part of her team and she was constantly taking them by the hand and guiding them into the work of numeracy. I know. I was one of the lucky teachers to have that guidance and belief in me as a teacher.

Sadly, Mary Jane is no longer with us but the paths she forged and the changes she made to the teaching of adult numeracy will continue on. I know they will for me in my math journey and hopefully for all teachers who strive to help their students understand and enjoy mathematics.


SAMSUNGPam is currently co-director of the SABES Center for Mathematics and Adult Numeracy professional development initiative for Massachusetts. Pam is a former high school math teacher and has taught math in adult education for over 25 years. She helped co-develop Adults Reaching Algebra Readiness (AR)2 with Donna Curry. She is a national trainer for LINCS and ANI (Adult Numeracy Instruction). Pam enjoys sharing techniques for teaching math conceptually from Basic Math through Algebra and has co-authored the Hands On Math series for Walch Publishing in Portland, Maine.

1 thought on “Remembering Mary Jane

  1. It is noteworthy to me that you picked the line from the song about moonbeams. About a month after MJ was diagnosed with cancer I wrote a poem that was a lot about her and also about the moon. I wrote it in Spanish. The basic idea is that the moon has neither lips nor fingers nor eyes and yet I feel it follows me wherever I go, it reaches out to touch the treetops and to pull at the ocean, and so on.

    Mary Jane used patterns a lot to explain things in math. There was always a way to start with a simpler version of a problem, to start with something I felt solid about, and then to work from there. To this day I will opt to figure out percents or to scale amounts using 10’s or by doubling or some other multiplicative pattern usually.

    A thing that makes me laugh is how we would do math and talk about math teaching and learning all day, but when it came time to count handouts and supplies and books and numbers of people attending and consent forms, we never could get the numbers to come out right. We’d count once, twice, three times, fall apart laughing, start over, give up, make 10 more in case, complain about having too much (me), complain about not having enough (her), and so it went.


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