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Stories aim to grow interest in math

SANTA FE, N.M. — What do yaks, cooking meatballs and saving baby whales have to do with math?

A lot, as it turns out.

Those are just a few subjects of story-driven math problems Santa Fe teachers were exposed to Wednesday during the first day of a three-day training session in the MidSchoolMath program being adopted by Santa Fe Public Schools.

“Reaching the post-modern student takes a lot more zip and zing,” said Zanet Ramos-Benavidez, a eighth-grade math teacher at Santa Fe’s De Vargas Middle School. “What this does is open up the potential for getting rid of canned curriculum and puts creativity and fun into math class.”

Scott Laidlaw, who, along with Jennifer Lightwood, founded the MidSchoolMath initiative, said the idea was developed as a way to transform student attitudes about math, while ultimately improving test scores and building a foundation for future learning.

Laidlaw summed up the attitude of most middle school children by quoting a former student in the Questa school district.

“One student said that math was something invented by an evil alien from outer space who hated middle schoolers,” he said. “The idea for this was developed to change the way students felt about math.”

Math is perhaps the greatest obstacle students face en route to graduation and contributes heavily to the drop-out rate, he said. Students become frustrated with learning concepts and equations and dread math class.

So about 10 years ago, while teaching at Roots and Wings Community School in Questa, Laidlaw began looking for ways to change students’ attitudes.

Kids treasure game

After seeing an advertisement for the world’s largest write-on map in a magazine, he decided to buy the map and developed a learning game he called “Piracy.”

“The idea was for them to learn ratios and proportions through the spice trade,” he said. “I had this map that took up the whole room and was covered with about 3,000 sticky notes that kept falling off. I thought it was a disaster, but the kids kept asking me, ‘When do we get to play the game again?’ s”

Laidlaw said he figured out it wasn’t the game that intrigued them, but the story behind it.

“When teachers can engage kids in a story, that’s when you see them not only inspired, but see something that’s comprehensible to them. The story is essential for comprehending the math,” he said.

He also saw that the students’ math skills improved dramatically.

“It just grew from there,” he said.

The concept behind it grew into MidSchoolMath, which is now being shopped to schools.

A selling point is that it aligns with the Common Core standards required of the schools.

While MidSchoolMath has been adopted by pockets of schools, Santa Fe is the first school district in the nation to fully embrace it.

“When you have leadership like you have in Santa Fe, where they trust their teachers to develop the curriculum from within, that’s inspiring. You have to have that anchor,” Laidlaw said.

Carl Gruenler, who deals in math all day long as the district’s chief financial officer, said MidSchoolMath not only improves learning, but it rekindles teachers’ enthusiasm.

Big story on film

Gruenler was first exposed to the approach Laidlaw and Lightwood developed when he saw the independent documentary “The Biggest Story Problem,” a film that features Laidlaw examining the factors that influence math education in America, a few years ago.

The gist of the film is that the drill-reward-repeat model might actually compound students’ difficulty learning math by emphasizing that it must be memorized to be mastered, when the real key is to provide meaning, purpose and relevance.

“I didn’t realize the depth of the problem – the overuse of textbooks and bad teaching, which is to say the stand and deliver method that doesn’t generate excitement,” he said. “The problem with public education is we’re answering questions before they get asked. If you have a process whereby you can get me excited or curious, I’m going to want to know about it.”

Gruenler was excited and curious about the possibility of introducing this approach to teaching math in Santa Fe schools, and the idea took hold when the district hired reform-minded Superintendent Joel Boyd and James Luján came on board as an assistant superintendent.

Luján had already been exposed to MidSchoolMath while principal at Ernie Pyle Middle School in Albuquerque and is in charge of overseeing the implementation of the program in SFPS.

Teachers haven’t begun infusing MidSchoolMath into their teaching just yet – that’s the purpose of the training being held at The Lodge at Santa Fe this week – but several teachers got a head start by attending professional development sessions last winter.

Saving a whale

Heather Herd, a math teacher at Aspen Community School, conceived a story-based problem that challenges students to determine the best way to save a baby whale that had been separated from its mother. She plans to introduce the story to her class later this semester.

“My first ideas didn’t work. It took me a while to come to a clear sense of what would work,” said Herd, who donned a swim cap and goggles while presenting the story during Wednesday’s training session. “Finding an idea for a story that’s inspiring and fun is a fundamental necessity. You need one that you know kids will be swept away by, because when you get down to it what really matters is that your story is exciting.”

Herd said she loves the idea of MidSchoolMath, and she thinks other teachers will, too.

“For me, it’s creative and challenging. It was asking myself to rise to my best as a teacher,” she said. “The other thing that’s exciting is we’re now looking at children as human beings. Everyone takes part in solving the problem and brings their own reasoning skills.”

Herd said what’s unique about the MidSchoolMath approach is that students aren’t just thrown a math problem and asked to solve it. They become characters in the story.

“The emphasis is on balancing the data they’re given with intuition, and that’s what we have to do to bring out those reasoning skills.”