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Class is Out to Change Way Educators Teach Math Ann Arbor: U-M Addresses Poor Testing Performance

July 28, 2008

By Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press

Jul. 28–The math teacher walked back and forth in the middle of the U-shaped group of tables, often leaning down to talk to students who needed help or sending students to the front of the room to demonstrate their work for others.

“Fractions are one of the most important parts of math that can help you do well in middle school and high school,” Deborah Loewenberg Ball told the two dozen students seated before her as they embarked on a lesson about fractions.

This is no typical summer math class. And Ball is no ordinary teacher.

Cameras are recording every move the class makes. And in the back of the room, a group of adults — some teachers, some teacher educators, some researchers — are paying rapt attention. As is another group of adults watching on large screens in a room next door.

The two-week class, called the Elementary Mathematics Laboratory, is one of the ways the University of Michigan School of Education is working to improve math education.

Ball, the dean of the school and a math educator, said all kids can learn math and succeed; they just need to be taught well. And a large part of this class is about showing teachers — and students training to become one — effective methods for teaching math.

It’s a crucial goal because there is growing concern across the country about the poor math performance of U.S. students.

In Michigan, that concern was increased this past school year as many ninth-graders struggled with tough new graduation requirements mandating far more math than before.

The new rules, Ball said, are “on the one hand, the right thing to do.” But she worries that if schools don’t adapt and provide support for students, “we’re just going to fail more kids.

“We need to invest more on younger kids,” she said.

And that’s what they’re doing in the math lab.

Not only are a group of fifth-graders getting a boost in math, but teachers are getting a boost, too.

The educators are learning about different teaching methods by watching a demonstration daily for two weeks.

They then participate in briefings before class, where Ball presents the lesson of the day. There, the participants can raise concerns about the lesson, make suggestions, or ask questions. After Ball is done teaching, the group gets together again for a debriefing.

While that’s happening, the fifth-graders participate in an enrichment activity. And later in the day, they work one-on-one with U-M students who tutor in math and are training to become teachers.

Katherine Fye, a second-grade teacher at Chapelle Community School in Ypsilanti, is a former student of Ball.

Fye said she signed up for the class to learn how to incorporate some of Ball’s instructional methods, such as how to layer many concepts in one lesson; get kids to understand the reasoning behind why an answer is right or wrong, and how to give students time to think.

Midway through the third day, Fye was gushing about the impact of being part of the program. She said she’s never been part of such a diverse group of people all working toward improving math education.

“This is the most unique thing ever,” she said.

Bria Goffney, who’ll be a fifth-grader at Childs Elementary School in Ypsilanti, said she was nervous at first when she heard cameras would be filming.

But she’s gotten used to it. Besides, she said, they’re not watching her; they’re watching how she’s being taught.

“If they’re not learning from a good teacher, then they’re not learning from the right people, and they’re not going to be a good teacher,” Bria said.

Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-351-3694 or lhiggins@freepress.com.

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