Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teaching Math to Middle School Boys

Teacher Tom Wolken uses technology tools and timed challenges to teach math at Olmsted Academy North, an all-boys middle school in Louisville, Kentucky.

Teaching Math to Middle School Boys (Transcript)

Tom: Today our activity will be you all taking smaller congruent shapes and building a larger similar shape.

Narrator: Teacher Tom Wolken worked in the computer industry before coming to teach seventh-grade math at Olmsted North, and the career-change culture shock caused him to be physically ill and mentally stressed.

Tom: Within the first week that I was here, I approached my principal, Mr. Perkins, and I told him that I was having a really bad day. He said, "How bad could it get?" I had described the worst situation would be that I went back to my former employer and they'd already filled my position, and I was jingling my car keys as I said this to him. So he said, "Well, we'll get you some more help in your classroom. You hang in there another week," and I did that and I've had -- every year since then it's gotten better and better.

Guys, which of these shapes can fit together to make a larger shape that's similar to the original?

Narrator: Now three years into the job, Wolken's classroom is a hive of active learning, partly because he's learned some tricks of the trade in dealing with Olmsted's all-male environment.

Tom: In my three years of teaching, I've only taught all boys, so I like that energy in the classroom.

You have 20 seconds when I say "go"…

We can be more competitive. Boys respond to a competitive environment. I'd like to tie my classroom to a lot of things we do.

Joe, there's 19 seconds left. We need to…

Boys respond to different colors and sound cues than girls do, so I try to use all that in my classroom environment to get my boys engaged and keep them learning.

Divide up the work. Have one person work on squares and sketch it, one person work on diamonds, one person work on trapezoids…

I could've have done this less than three years ago, but I don't think the student outcomes would've been as good. I wouldn't have been cued in to the boys' energy. I probably would've stood and lectured most of the time instead of having them to hands-on activities. I probably would not have given them as much structure. Boys need structure.

Guys, 10 more seconds.

These are the outcomes that we're expecting. This is the time you have to do it in. You're going to have time to work together. Then you're going to have time to listen to your instructor, and during that time you'll also be asking questions, but we raise our hands. We don't shout out. So, I brought a lot of different structure and energy to my classroom that was not there three years ago.

Now, remember, let's think about using our math words.

I created a PowerPoint display to put up a special message during the week. It's usually an inspirational message. I also use the clock to show pictures of the students doing things that demonstrate school spirit or having fun. It's also classroom management, because I'll tell my guys that if they earn recognition slips in my room that I can put their picture and two of their buddies on TV for a week, and they get excited about that.

Quantel's going to show us how he did a trapezoid.

I use the Web cam in my classroom for two reasons. First, the boys respond to be able to show and demonstrate their work. They take a great deal of pride in that. And, secondly, I use it as a classroom-management tool. I went out and spent $20.00 at the discount store. The camera is mounted on Popsicle sticks with duct tape, and it gives the boys an area where they can show their work.

So, Dwan created a larger version of that triangle.

As far as classroom management, I use the camera because if the boys want to come up and use it, they need to show me that they've gotten their work done. They need to have had appropriate behavior during the lesson, and then they're eligible to come up and use the technology, so it's not just a whiz-bang feature in the classroom. It's also for their learning experience, because if everybody's doing their work, if everybody's being respectful in the classroom, then everybody can learn.

What was our scale factor to go from one to two inches?

Student: Two.

Tom: Okay.

Narrator: For more information about what works in public education, go to edutopia.org.

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

Contact media@edutopia.org for video permissions questions or other assistance.


Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Associate Producer

  • Doug Keely

Camera Crew

  • Rob Weller
  • Mark Crowner

Coordinating Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Peter Coyote

Original Music

  • Ed Bogas

Additional Footage Courtesy of

  • Jefferson County Public Schools

Support for Edutopia's Schools That Work series is provided, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

What do you think of Schools that Work?
Tweet your answer to @edutopia or post your comment below.

Comments (3)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.