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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

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"How many teachers does it take to wrap a basketball?" jokes Shirley Lyon of Lawrence, Mass. One by one, though, the groups enjoy the success of creating a set of evenly spaced up-and-down curves on their calculators.

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As they go through various exercises, the teachers talk about a typical range of concerns: What if my school can't afford these $100 calculators and $50 motion sensors? It's activity that matters, Hannum says, not technology. Go to the science lab and the art room and ask what they've got. Always collaborate with other teachers, he urges.

What if a principal balks at unconventional activities? Just say, "Give me a year to show results."

Tony Luckett already does unorthodox lessons at the Media and Technology Charter High School (MATCH) in Boston, but now, he says, "I feel confident. I can go back and [use these ideas] and I know exactly where they're going to fit in my curriculum." And as incoming chair of the math department, he can see how the motion sensors could be used in different classes.

These workshops are invaluable, Mr. Luckett says. "It's necessary to learn from other teachers. We get so busy, I really don't have a chance to leave my room to see what other folks are doing, other than at our staff meetings."

Teachers in the student role

In a tiny, packed conference room after lunch, Jennifer Coughlin offers strategies for "maximizing the impact of science labs." She draws on her experience teaching science to English-language learners and native American students, and this year she's an Einstein Fellow at the US Department of Energy, giving her an opportunity to shape K-12 science education policy.

After she walks the teachers through explanations of how to set up lab-based performance assessments that mimic the kinds of problem-solving real scientists do, she has them divide into groups to try it out. "Off you go," she declares with a quick upward thrust of her arms, "I'm going to be the teacher, you be the students."

Three groups measure colored liquids to calculate their density and attempt to layer them in the right order so they won't mix. Out in the hall, four women squat around a sheet of paper, where they're trying to position mirrors to reflect a pen-size laser beam and hit a target: a smiley-face sticker on a block of wood.

"I try to make it too much work for one person," Ms. Coughlin says, "so if you don't work as a team you're not going to be successful." She also hands out scoring guides that state the expectations for qualifying as "an expert scientist," in other words, getting the highest grade.

'You naughty monkeys!'

Little did she know that her rounds with this set of students would include some discipline. As she steps into the hall, she finds the mirror group already using the laser for trial and error, instead of calculating the angles first, as they were instructed. "You naughty monkeys," she reprimands. When she gives the laser back later, they find they've missed the mark.

"It's a visceral experience," Coughlin says. Students sometimes have to go back and analyze what went wrong and try again. And that makes them remember. On her comprehensive exams at the end of the school year, she's found that they do best on subjects they've explored through these kinds of labs.

The point is never just entertainment, she and Hannum emphasize. They insist that all their students use correct vocabulary and relevant formulas, and write down their scientific reasoning.

"I do have traditional lecture-style classes where we really pound in the core understanding," Hannum says. "If you have a class ... where everyone's having fun but you lose the connection to the core principles, then it's not doing anyone any good."