You would assume the winner of a prestigious math-teaching award must have always been a numbers whiz. Wrong.
"I hated math in school," says Tammy Rasmussen, one of this year's recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). Growing up in the woodsy southern Oregon town of Roseburg, she adds, "I couldn't see any connection to what I was seeing in the real world."
It never occurred to her that there was a relationship between boring algebra lectures and her true passion, music. So though she was the star of the marching band, playing both clarinet and drums, she failed math.
Fast forward: Rasmussen, no longer a math dunce, became one of ninety-five K-12 math and science teachers honored by the National Science Foundation for outstanding instruction this May. Included in the package: $10,000, a weeklong paid trip to Washington, and a meet-and-greet with the president and the first lady at the White House. She did it by realizing that math is a way of seeing and expressing patterns and rhythms, just like music.
A public school kindergarten instructor for most of her thirteen-year career, Rasmussen rediscovered the loathed subject while getting her teaching degree. She realized, she says, that "math is about 'How is this algorithm different from that one?' If someone had connected music and math for me when I was in school, I would have soared."
Rasmussen hit on a method of getting children to understand the concept of patterns, the basis of both a drum line and an algorithm, by simply noticing differences and similarities between things. In one lesson, she played a tune, then repeated the same melody in a different octave. "Children can hear, 'Oh, it's a similar tune, but she dropped it down,'" she says. "They start to recognize the pattern."
To be considered for a PAEMST award, instructors must submit an unedited video of themselves teaching. Rasmussen's winning example showed a lesson in which her kindergartners compared pictures of various types of butterflies. Each child was encouraged to notice characteristics of wing coloration and patterning the insects had in common, and to find other aspects in which they were different, and discuss them. The class also counted sections of the butterflies' bodies, and compared notes. They identified the line of symmetry, and in doing so learned the concept of one-to-one correspondence that's a building block of algebra.
Best of all, from Rasmussen's perspective, was that the children spoke like mathematicians. "I don’t let them use kidspeak," she says. "No 'It's cool' or 'It's neat.' It’s 'I counted the sections on one side, and there were sixteen, and then I counted the sections on the other side, and they were the same.'"
Rasmussen was teaching in the very school district she attended as a kid. But this year she left the classroom to become an instructional coach for other teachers in her district. Ironically, she's working alongside the very instructor who failed her in math in high school. No hard feelings, though: He's an expert on algebraic formulas. She’s an expert on showing how they relate to real life.