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Judy Spooner Viewpoint: Students learning math a new way

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Judy Spooner Viewpoint: Students learning math a new way
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

They weren't like any math classes I had. That's a good thing.

In my math classes, when they called it "arithmetic," there was at least one kid the rest of us hated. When the teacher asked a question, this guy would raise his hand immediately with the answer.

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Also, after my first day in algebra, I cried on the way home. I had never heard any of the vocabulary words my teacher was using. It seemed as if I had landed on another planet.

Neither of these things should happen to kids.

I survived to be the first girl to take advanced math and science at Rosemount High School but there were obstacles I shouldn't have had to climb over.

The good news is that math classes have changed. The teachers that I see in classrooms are much better than the ones I had with the exception of my chemistry and physics teachers.

Since the beginning of school last fall, I've been in at least five middle school math classes for various stories with kids who have a range of math abilities. They won't hit the high schools for several years, but I can say for sure that math scores are going up because of outstanding District 833 middle school teachers.

Here's what I learned in math class:

The teachers actually like their students, which is at the top of my list of traits teachers must have in middle school. They have a high tolerance for noise and confusion and understand how kids this age are trying to find out what adult life is like.

I was in Susan Nicholas' math class last week for a story about techniques she learned to improve her teaching. Not once during her lesson did she lecture. It was a long conversation with students. She listened to them and encouraged their comments. Kids felt free to ask questions, even ones that other kids already had the answers to.

Nicholas respects her students and, in turn, they treat her with respect.

There are now "brain breaks" for kids. Nicholas had her students run in place for 10 seconds. After they sat down, the room was quiet again and kids were focused.

Asia Bednar also has brain breaks in her math classes. In one of them, kids put their thumbs toward the ceiling on one hand and point their pinkie fingers toward the ceiling on the other hand. The kids have to switch finger positions back and forth from one hand to the other. Try it. It's good for your brain.

Bednar didn't lecture either but involved kids in conversation to get her lesson across.

She told them they would get to understand "imaginary numbers" when they get to high school, knowing the kids would pester her to tell them about them now. She knowingly resisted but they kept it up. Without adding the exceptions, she gave them a definition.

"If that's what we'll learn in high school, that's easy," said one student.

It was a good day in math class and not once did I see that smarty pants kid with all the answers.

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Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
(651) 459-7600
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