In summer, math teachers share tricks of the trade
NEWARK, N.J. — On a steamy July morning recently, a small band of Newark, N.J., public school math teachers is tussling with a decidedly unsummerlike activity: finding six different formulas for converting temperatures from Celsius to Fahrenheit.
Dressed in T-shirts, sandals, and jeans, these teachers are crowded around a table, listening to exhortations by an instructor.
"That's a good formula, a good little algebra problem for your kids," he says enthusiastically, glancing down at one participant's solution. "But now let's see five more."
Learning to see beyond the obvious in teaching math is what this seminar is all about. The three instructors energetically working with the Newark teachers this morning are part of the Exeter Math Institute, a program sponsored by Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation in Chevy Chase, Md.
In some ways, the EMI represents a meeting of two different worlds. The instructors working in the summer program are all full-time teachers at the elite private school, accustomed to offering seminar-style classes to groups as small as a dozen of some of the nation's most highly prepared students.
But in the summer, they hit the road as part of EMI, and travel to low-income urban school districts, where they share their methods with teachers. This year, the Exeter teachers conducted workshops in Dallas, Fort Worth, Memphis, and Newark. The teachers who attend are paid for their time.
For the local teachers, it's a chance to learn something new. "I like to see how the other half lives," says Charles Royal, a math staff developer at a Newark middle school.
For the Exeter teachers as well, EMI offers exposure to another experience. "We live in a sheltered world," says David Arnold, the instructor looking for the temperature conversion formulas. "This gives us a chance to see what's really going on out there, to understand what it's like to work with huge classes, less-motivated kids. This really brings it home."
EMI began in 1992 as a month-long immersion program held on the Exeter campus. But starting in 1997, the Exeter instructors took to the road.
The courses treat topics like applying technology in the classroom, using graphing calculators, and creating hands-on activities. Math teachers can sharpen their own math skills, and also observe some of the Exeter methods.
In fact, Eric Bergofsky, an instructor and the founder of EMI, says he sees the program as driven more by pedagogy than content. The teachers get a chance to see the style of education promoted at Exeter, which he describes as based fundamentally on the belief that learning should be active, rather than passive.
Mr. Bergofsky recognizes that some of what is done in the small classes at Exeter may be hard to replicate in classes with as many as 30 students, but he says that while "they may not be able to translate it entirely into their situations, they'll pick up bits and pieces of it."
Saundra Battle, a seventh-grade Newark math teacher, says that the "questioning, hands-on" Exeter approach is actually very compatible with the way she works. Even with large classes, she says, "if you plan and you are creative, you can incorporate a lot of it."
Learning about instruction methods at Exeter has been very helpful, she says. "It's important to get this background."
Tina Powell, a math staff developer who works in several Newark schools, says she came to learn "more than one way to solve a problem," but has also found exposure to the methods very useful. "Those are the underpinnings to what they do, and they're not focusing on them here, but we're picking them up."
Bill Campbell, an EMI instructor for nine years and a 41-year veteran at Exeter, says that in some ways he prefers the summer immersion program because it allowed concepts to be explored in greater depth. But the seminars, he believes, require follow-up sessions.
Such sessions are under consideration for the Newark teachers, says May Samuels, director of mathematics for the Newark schools. Ms. Samuels says she feels very positive about the energy and enthusiasm created by the seminars.
The Newark teachers span the spectrum in terms of mathematical skill and knowledge, as Bergofsky says is the case in all the cities EMI has worked in. "A lot of times the teachers are not very fully trained in math," he says. "Some teachers are teaching up to or beyond the level of their own knowledge."
A handful of the Newark teachers appear very comfortable in more advanced math, and enjoy playing with the concepts being tossed around. For others, the value comes in seeing those concepts taught in concrete and engaging ways.
After demonstrating a more elaborate lesson, Mr. Campbell passes out some algebra tiles and explains ways in which kids can work with such manipulatives in class.
One teacher watches him in awe, as his hands move rapidly over the tiles. "I am learning so much," she murmurs, "just in these last few minutes."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society