Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Teachers try to spice up math

Classes emphasize links to music and art

By William A. Valente
Poughkeepsie Journal
Darryl Bautista/Poughkeepsie Journal
Math instructor Jim Bennett of the Upton Lake Christian School holds the prototype of his algebra journal. Math and art meet in the journals, a year-long project designed to help students learn mathematics.
Darryl Bautista/Poughkeepsie Journal
Students at the Upton Lake Christian School work on their algebra journals.
As students struggle to achieve higher math scores across the region, state and nation, educators are coming up with creative ways to raise student interest -- and grades. 

When math teacher Jim Bennett pondered the problem of getting students more involved, he decided to use his experience as an artist. 

Bennett, who teaches at Upton Lake Christian School in the Town of Clinton, has created a math journal that lays out the principles of algebra by incorporating illustrations, real-life examples and biographies of famous mathematicians. 

He gives each of his students a blank journal at the beginning of the year and it becomes the student's notebook, homework pad and textbook for the year. Bennett supplements those materials with work sheets. 

One page explains certain underlying mathematical principles of music. Students sketch part of a piano keyboard and the corresponding notes on a musical scale. 

Although national math scores have improved at the elementary and middle school levels over the past decade, U.S. students still fare worse in math than their counterparts in other developed countries. 

Some students take to the subject with a natural talent, but many wonder what real-life relevance math has for them. 

To help answer that question, Bennett designed a mural project for his pre-calculus class and a mapping project for geometry students. 

''These are art projects that create a year-long theme,'' Bennett said. ''And they are also designed to create a certain excitement in the classroom.'' 

National authorities say math skills are necessary to keep the United States in the forefront of technology, which leads to improvements in everyone's quality of life. 

U.S. does well early

According to the Business Coalition for Education Reform, U.S. students score above the international average in mathematics, outperformed by only seven countries, at the elementary level. But by eighth grade, students score below the international average in mathematics, and that trend continues through high school. 

Progress is necessary to produce engineers, technicians and computer-literate workers, said Chan Prasad, an engineer and Wappingers school board member. 

''Being an increasingly technological society, we have to put more emphasis on math than before,'' he said. ''Math and English are the two essential subjects for going through life. Once there is improvement in those skills, students naturally improve in other areas as well.'' 

In an effort to boost exam performance, educators in the state are taking a new look at how math is taught and perceived. 

One obstacle: parents' perception that math is difficult or inaccessible. 

''That sends the message to the kids that it's OK not to like math, not to do well in math,'' said Debbie Kafdas, a Poughkeepsie Middle School math teacher. 

Revamping curriculum, bringing in real-life examples of math, having guest speakers, using word associations and playing games are among the methods teachers use to get students involved. 

''I get up there and just try to act silly,'' said Jill Sitler, a math teacher at Arlington Middle School. ''Whatever works.'' 

For schools in New York, the challenge of improving math skills has been highlighted by the phasing in of standardized tests over the past five years. 

The new exams focus more on real-life examples and word problems, and less on multiple choice answers, a trend many teachers have incorporated into the classroom for years. 

''They're asking the students to look at patterns, to achieve an understanding of what math is really all about,'' said Agnes Laub, district director of math and science in the Hyde Park school district. ''Let's face it, you still have to know your math facts, but pages and pages of rote exercises isn't always the best approach.'' 

Water helps teach fractions

Using blocks, water and different-sized containers to demonstrate fractions is part of fourth-grader Risa Pomerselig's math curriculum at Lenape Elementary School in the New Paltz school district. 

''We were finding the fractions and estimating the fractions of how much water there was left in the glass,'' the 9-year-old said of the exercise. ''And I think that was the funnest part of math so far.'' 

Standardized math exams are now given in grades four and eight. Performance on the exams has been below expectations. 

Educators are particularly concerned about low test scores at the middle-school level. 

Dutchess County BOCES recently received a $128,000 grant to develop programs to improve student performance at the eighth-grade level in six area school districts which show the greatest need in math: The districts are Beacon, Hyde Park, Pine Plains, Poughkeepsie, Wappingers and Webutuck. 

New programs include ongoing staff development, on-site teacher mentoring and coordination of curriculum at different grade levels. 

Educators largely attribute poor middle-school performance to the social pressures of young adolescent life. By high school, students tend to become more practical. 

''You start to realize how important it really is when you start looking at colleges and scholarships,'' said Rachel Barton, a senior at Upton Lake. ''And you see how expensive college is.'' 

In addition to standardized tests in grades four and eight, New York high school students must also complete math courses and pass math Regents exams. 

Math A is now required; it covers such topics as algebra, geometry, statistics and logic, typically in three semesters. 

The current freshman class, and all following classes, will need a Regents diploma to graduate. School districts' changes are aimed to help all students pass the math exams. 

''We've done some work,'' Laub said. ''But there's still a lot more to be done.'' 

Relevant Web link
Math teacher Jim Bennett has a Web site, which includes descriptions and free downloads of all his projects. 

Copyright, The Poughkeepsie Journal