Dress up as a queen, teach math like a pro

Cat biscuits in a plexiglass bin. Maps. Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Kay Toliver's props can be a bit eccentric, but the math lessons they dress up have proved particularly successful. Ms. Toliver's unique style of math instruction touches on virtually every discipline, from music and communication arts to literature and history.

The students are so enamored that they routinely throw their arms around her waist as she's walking down the halls of New York's Primary School 72 in East Harlem. They don't see her in the classroom as often these days, because the award-winning teacher is busy helping less-experienced colleagues master the craft.

"A lot of what I've done with mathematics stems around the language of math," she says.

The same problem-solving skills students use for math also apply to situations in life, she explains. "I always want to prepare [students] as best as possible to be people who will be able to go out into this world and have something to give."

Toliver tailors her presentation to children's tastes, sometimes incorporating costumes and songs. "I was always sort of animated," she says, sitting at a diminutive table in her office.

"It doesn't bother me to break out into song. If I'm doing a math lesson and I see they're not getting it and they're having trouble rounding numbers, then I'll start singing," she explains. "I just try to figure out how I can make this information interesting enough that, No. 1, they'll start paying attention."

When the task was learning how to estimate, she got the seventh-graders' attention with a pyramid-shaped bin of cat biscuits and by dressing as an ancient Egyptian queen.

"How many biscuits are there?" she asked the children. Their initial guesses ranged from 80,000 to 20 million, but when she passed out smaller bins of biscuits, teams of students quickly figured out how to calculate more-accurate estimates of the contents in the large bin.

All the while, the exact answer was on the board right in front of them - but it wasn't until the end of class that Toliver translated it from hieroglyphics to Arabic numerals: 4,263. To round out the lesson, she had the students write about it in their journals.

Theatrics, though, are not the key to success in the classroom, she insists.

She advises teachers to develop a method with which they are comfortable. Along the way, have fun, she says - the kind of fun that doesn't waste time but helps kids feel good about what they're learning.

That joy of learning is what drives Toliver, who knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was a child growing up in Harlem and the South Bronx. Her parents emphasized that education was the key to a better life.

"The most significant thing about the work that I do, besides the love that I have for being a teacher, is the love that I have for my first teachers, who were my parents," she says.

Toliver began student-teaching at PS 72 in 1966, and in the intervening years has taught all the grades in the K-8 school.

She was teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math in 1992 when a colleague needled her to enter the Disney Channel American Teacher Awards. On her entry form, she wrote about her first and best teacher, her father, who didn't have much formal education but was curious and always trying to learn.

She went on to win not only that award, but in the same year a Presidential Award for excellence in teaching from Bill Clinton as well. Any of Toliver's students can tell you what tools she gives them to be successful: "Miss Toliver says we have to have a good vocabulary and speak well," they say.

Children also need skilled teachers who love the craft, Toliver says. After her awards in 1992, her focus shifted from teaching children to training her peers. She can't resist visiting classrooms at PS 72, but no longer presides over one.

Her model for teaching has a far reach through TV documentaries. "Good Morning, Miss Toliver," for instance, aired on public television in September 1993, and went on to become one of the most popular staff-development tools in the United States. In turn, Toliver was invited to lead educational workshops.

"I was very happy in my classroom," she says. "But ... when I work with teachers there's one thing that makes me valid: They know that it's coming from the heart."

She has also participated in a series of classroom videos produced by the Foundation for Advancement in Science and Education (FASE): "The Eddie Files" and their companion pieces, "The Kay Toliver Files."

"The videos give teachers a chance to do something they don't often get to do: look at one teacher in her classroom. You can be next door to someone and never have seen the way that they teach," Toliver says. "It's key that we see how other teachers talk to children, question children, even how the room is set up."

Toliver's classroom was also a place of sharing. Her pupils did a lot of collaborative work. "If they're not doing, if they're simply listening, the bottom line is they can tune you out, very easily," she says.

Students also learn by speaking (in complete sentences, please). "When they speak, you get into how they're thinking," she says. "Kids have to be able to model, show you, explain to you, tell you why, formulate an opinion.

"And then, they have to have people who are willing to listen to them ... and understand them as very valuable and precious beings. And so, I teach."

-- "Teaching with flair" is An occasional series profiling teachers who make the grade with students and colleagues

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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