Local Teachers Hone Math Knowledge at Summer Institutes
By Colleen Kearney Rich
Mason mathematician Padmanabhan Seshaiyer and math educator Jennifer Suh have found the old adage, “If you build it, they will come,” to be true. In fact, they have found that if you do build it, “they” will come back every year.
“They” are elementary through high school math teachers from nearby public school systems in Northern Virginia. For the past several years, Seshaiyer and Suh have offered professional development summer institutes, along with follow-up studies designed to meet the needs of this community of teachers.
Three years ago, the administrators at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia approached Seshaiyer about the No Child Left Behind Improving Teacher Quality Grants. Under this program, he sought to develop a specific kind of professional development workshop for kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers based on algebraic connections and technology.
An associate professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, Seshaiyer then contacted Mason’s College of Education and Human Development and found a research and teaching partner in Suh, an assistant professor in mathematical education. Together, the two now direct the Center for Outreach in Mathematics Professional Learning and Educational Technology.
The collaboration has benefited both researchers. “It is one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” says Seshaiyer. “I provide the content knowledge, but I have learned so much from Jennifer about pedagogy.”
“Teaching teachers is very different from teaching undergraduates,” says Seshaiyer. “The philosophy of teaching is the same, but there is more critical thinking. And I would never start a class [for teachers] without a warm-up problem.”
The summer institutes are problem based, not lecture based, and rely on discovery learning. The problems developed for the institute encourage teachers to think about math in new ways, which in turn gives them new skills and techniques to bring back to their classrooms.
“The idea is pretty simple: Take school teachers out of their classrooms in the summer and have them go through an institute that is completely different from what they normally do,” says Seshaiyer.
“This year, we surveyed [the teachers] to ask them about what they teach,” says Suh. “We then tried to create experiments about topics that had relevance for them.”
The institutes have been a huge success. They began with just 44 teachers the first year; the most recent institute in 2011 brought 250 teachers to Mason’s Fairfax Campus.
Last summer, Seshaiyer and Suh were joined by two other Mason colleagues: Toni Smith, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education who specializes in teaching math at the secondary school level, and Nathalia Peixoto, an assistant professor in the Volgenau School of Engineering who is an expert in bioengineering on designing methods to control and manipulate assistive technology.
The researchers have found that not only are public school teachers eager to come for professional development, many return year after year. In fact, returnees at last summer’s session had the opportunity to serve as lead teachers at the institute.
“The teachers are always excited to learn more and want to build up their professional knowledge,” says Suh. “Novice teachers especially want to improve their skills.”
Suh indicates that the center maintains good relationships with the district supervisors in the public school systems. This step is important because the teachers need the support of their administrators when they go back and begin to implement new techniques in their classrooms.
“While we want the teachers to enhance their content knowledge and teaching practices, we also want them to connect what they teach to real-world problems,” Seshaiyer says.
Through the Math Science Partnership grant, the teachers had the opportunity to work in Peixoto’s lab collecting data on bacteria, building circuits with resistors, creating waves by humming, and conducting a variety of other practical experiments. The idea behind the experimentation is that the teachers are able to discover the rich mathematics in each of these real-world problems and make the appropriate connections when teaching the related high school topics such as exponential growth and quadratic functions.
“Our goal is to empower these teachers with advanced content and practical knowledge on the topics they normally teach, which will help them to better answer the student question, Why should I learn this formula?” Seshaiyer adds.
Institute participant Cynthia Baird teaches math at Osborne Park High School in Manassas, Virginia. She comes to the summer institutes for “more tools to be able to change my classroom culture.” Baird has found that many students are able to memorize their way through the various levels of high school math.
“High schools are full of those kinds of students,” says Baird. “I want to be able to help them make connections and deepen their understanding.”
Laurena Collins, who teaches at Fred Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge, Virginia, admits that she is strong in math, but not as strong in science. This year’s institute was especially useful to her in helping to strengthen that connection.
“If a student isn’t excited about math, perhaps they can get excited about science or technology,” Collins says. “To be able to connect other subjects back to math is a powerful tool—and good for everybody, students and teachers.”
The 2011 institute was supported by the Virginia Department of Education, which named Mason a Math Science Partnership regional center to support professional development activities for teachers and students in several school districts in Northern Virginia.
The grant also provides institute participants with release time from their teaching responsibilities during the fall so they can continue professional development. Participants meet for three Saturdays during the fall semester to discuss the ways they have been able to implement what they’ve learned.
Seshaiyer, Suh, Smith, and Peixoto are following up the institute with seminars and content-focused coaching using a Japanese practice called Lesson Study. With Lesson Study, the host teacher presents a new lesson to students with teacher observers in the room. The observers are not there to critique the host teacher but to observe what takes place during the lesson. After the class, the teachers gather to discuss observations.
“Plan, teach, debrief,” says Seshaiyer of Lesson Study. “The debriefing is one of the most powerful experiences. If I am the host teacher, I can tell you how I think it went,
but as the observer, you are going to see something different.”
This method helps the teachers judge the level of student engagement and whether students are having difficulty following the lesson. The lesson can then be retooled before being presented to the next class.
“These teachers are starting to have an impact,” says Seshaiyer of institute participants.
“They have made a difference in their classroom, so they keep coming back.”
This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2012 in a slightly different form.