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To take the yawn out of math equations, teach the teachers

In an effort to boost K-12 student achievement, the US Department of Education sends star teachers on tour to share their ideas

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 2006


They're quite a bit older than Mark Hannum's typical students. But they seem just as relieved to get to play with motion sensors and brightly colored basketballs rather than be lectured to for an hour and a half.

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Mr. Hannum does manage to wow his audience of fellow math teachers with research suggesting why his lesson plans have helped nearly 97 percent of students achieve proficiency in math at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. They are impressed with the fact that 95 percent of seniors there opt to take a math or science elective. But the best evidence of his teaching's effectiveness is letting his audience play "student" and have their own fun as they tackle sinusoidal equations and exponential decay.

"I'm hoping to bring more hands-on experiences to my students," says participant Dawn Robertson, who teaches fourth- to sixth-graders at the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School. "You're basically competing with the video age, so you've got to be fascinating." She's one of about 250 who attended two days of teacher-run sessions on math and science last week, hosted by the US Department of Education at the EMC Corporation in Hopkinton, Mass.

It was one of 14 free workshops this summer that are part of the Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative. Through online learning and in-person training, the initiative gives teachers the kind of professional development they especially like – practical ideas from their peers. By selecting presenters who can back up what they share with research on its effectiveness, officials hope to create a ripple effect of higher-quality instruction.

About 10,000 teachers will have participated in the three-year-old initiative by the end of the summer. Some of this year's workshops are being held in conjunction with the National Park Service, focusing on history and science in places like Billings, Mont. Other themes include English as a second language and the teaching of Mandarin Chinese.

In selecting 100 presenters from a pool of 1,800 principals and teachers who applied, the Department of Education was particularly on the lookout for those who have brought up achievement levels for groups of students that have historically lagged behind.

In math and science, however, everyone needs to do better to ensure American competitiveness, officials say.

"We certainly have a long way to go ... [when] nearly half of our 17-year-olds don't have the necessary math skills to be on a production line in a modern automobile manufacturing plant, let alone be an engineer," US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said during a lunchtime talk at the Hopkinton workshop July 12. She recently formed a National Mathematics Advisory Panel, she added, "to provide our educators the sound and effective principles that we know are required for successful math instruction ... so that we can share those more broadly. We cannot expect teachers like you to have to reinvent this stuff every day."

Motion sensors in math class

Hannum's inspiration came from the other side of his teaching duties: physics, where he's seen kids eagerly engage in labs. He collaborated with teachers in math and science to create lessons that would make it easier for students to see the connections. When they're learning about pendulums in physics, for instance, he does a lesson about graphing that motion and using sinusoidal equations. That's where the gadgets come in.

In small clusters, 14 teachers follow the steps to hook sensors up to graphing calculators and test them out. When it comes time to make pendulums out of the undersized basketballs, they grapple with how to tie string around them.