Eager students, sharpened No. 2 pencils at the ready, anxiously await their math teacher's next challenge: "OK, the problem is 133 take away 87. You have to do it at least three ways. Take three minutes of private think time." The groans and giggles quickly fade to industrious silence as the students, teachers of every subject and grade level at Fullerton IV Elementary School, in Roseburg, Oregon, set to the task of thinking differently. Each teacher must find new and exciting ways -- beyond simply putting the number 87 and a minus sign under the number 133 -- to solve the routine math problem.
Math coach Mike Gould helps teachers find new ways to solve problems.
The themes of this teacher-training session are scrawled on red cards posted on the board: "Mistakes Start New Learning" and "There's More than One Method." "We've come to the realization that everybody can learn mathematics," says workshop leader and school math coach Mike Gould. "It's not a question of capacity anymore; it's a question of how you deliver it and how you allow people to think about it. With the leadership of organizations like the National Science Foundation, there's been a lot of research put into curriculums and programs that help everybody learn."
Linda Dwight, a fifth-grade math teacher, agrees.
"Before, we taught the algorithms: You do this first; you do this next. Kids had no understanding of what they were doing," notes Dwight. "Today, we tear these problems apart, into pieces. The kids really understand and have a number sense of why the problem works the way it does."
Fullerton principal Mickey Garrison has championed the math curriculum and an emphasis on cross-disciplinary teacher training. "To me, math is not just a subject," Garrison says. "It really allows kids to learn how to reason and problem solve and learn how to effectively communicate. And if they can think conceptually, it opens up not just math; it makes connections for them in the real world. It allows them to explore music and art. It's all about rhythm and pattern. And if you can get kids to make that association, they have a new way of thinking about what it is they're thinking about."
Using plot points on a grid, students try to “sink a battleship” in computer lab.
At Fullerton, students can't help but think about math. It is embedded throughout the curriculum and throughout the school day in the computer labs students participate in before school, first-period "Calendar Math" (daily math problems based on the day of the month), art, where the concepts of symmetry and pattern drive creativity, and music class during the last period of the day, where thirty minutes of pedagogical alchemy can turn a study of M. C. Escher images and the concept of positive and negative numbers into quarter notes and quarter rests -- the sound and silence of music.
The immersion approach to teaching math has led to dramatically improved test scores and national recognition for Fullerton as one of twenty Intel "Schools of Distinction." The accomplishments are even more remarkable, considering challenges such as large class size (one fifth-grade class holds thirty-five students) and moderate income (60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch). "Something feels good here," says math coach Mike Gould. "People value mathematics, and they also value that all people can learn mathematics. They're working very hard at finding ways to bring everybody into the picture."
Fullerton students measure the length of the Titanic on a street near the school.
"Everybody" includes the handful of students in Steph Neyhart's Alternative Learning Center, a special class for students with emotional problems and other medical or behavior issues that can be barriers to learning in a regular classroom. One class project, a study of the RMS Titanic, began as a reading assignment. "But in the process, we came up with all this math," notes Neyhart. "We discovered that the Titanic was 882 1/2 feet long. We knew that was big, but we had no way to put that into context."
Together, the class decided to pace off the distance on a street adjoining the school, dragging hundred-foot lengths of string behind them. Ignoring barking dogs, moving garbage cans out of their path, their strides unsure at times, Neyhart's kids ultimately measured up to the task, all 882 1/2 feet of it. Standing at the top of a knoll, the students peered down several blocks at the small sign marking their starting point. "Wow, that's a long way," said one. "Gee," Neyhart mused, "how do you think a ship that big can float? Maybe that's our next investigation."
"They like the problem solving and learning to look at things in different ways, because these kids do look at things in different ways," says Neyhart. "These are also hands-on learners, and they prefer to be doing things when they're learning, and so it gets them very excited about it. They love math."
Whether it's teaching challenged students or training talented teachers, Fullerton principal Garrison believes that unleashing the power of math can work wonders. "My personal belief is, if you can problem solve in life, you can do anything you want."
For more information about the strategies used to implement the math curriculum at Fullerton IV Elementary School, read an interview transcript with Principal Mickey Garrison.
Ken Ellis is the former executive producer of Edutopia video.