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

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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