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Propelled by low test scores, Oltman Middle School finds another path to math

Cede Klein works part of a math class period on an iPad, accessing only the programs she is instructed to work on. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner1 / 2
Molly Wenner uses an iPad to work on a Mahjong program in which tile "16," for example, matches up with "4 X 4." Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner2 / 2

When Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test results were released last fall, Oltman Middle School teachers and staff members were disappointed with low math scores that landed the school on a list of those "not making adequate yearly progress."

When teachers returned to school, Oltman Principal Becky Schroeder declared war on math.

With the teachers, Schroeder changed class schedules so students had two math classes a day, some of them back to back and others staggered throughout the day.

Students who scored high in math have one class of math and one in STEM, an engineering program with a math emphasis.

Some teachers are using iPads to augment instruction, which also adds a technology to their teaching.

Not all of a class period is spent on iPads but students are enthusiastic about using them. When math teacher Stacy Hinz announced recently, that students would be working on them, a cheer went up from her sixth-grade pre-algebra students.

Students are encouraged to learn iPad functions but they are directed by Hinz to the application she wants them to work on.

In a tile-matching program, students could choose to work on addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and fractions with degrees of difficulty.

Students who pick the simplest level to avoid a challenge simply go on the next level because they aren't challenged.

"Only boring people are bored," Hinz said.

It's apparent students are having fun going from one math function to another.

Clustered in groups of three to four desks, students help each other if they struggle.

"You're adding and I'm subtracting," said Cede Klein to her classmate Hailey Morseth.

Everyone works at their own pace but Hinz, based on test scores and knowing her students as individuals, makes sure students who need extra help are working in those applications.

The iPads encourage students to try levels that might be too hard for them, Hinz said, without having to raise their hands and risk not having the correct answer.

The next level for students will be to work on problems from the Internet that are similar to the state computer MCA math tests they will take in the spring. They will do calculations with paper and pencil.

Math teachers say the iPads are 21st century flash cards with another important function.

It's not enough to know the answer to a math problem, students have to explain how they got it.

"It's important for them to figure it out," she said.

Schroeder said kids who are not doing well in math don't need another workbook or work sheet. They need other ways to learn, including the technology they'll need.

For 24 Oltman students, another way to learn math happens when they get tutoring from Tyler Hanson, an AmeriCorps volunteer who has a math degree but not a teaching certificate.

Tutoring four students a class period using AmeriCorps materials, Hanson guides them using repetition and math games.

The goal is to break the habit of students thinking they are not good at math, Schroeder said.

Society, in general, has math phobia, she said.

Students tell her that they do all their homework and leave math untouched. This is backed up by records teachers keep of assignments.

"We need to take away the fear," she said.

Another path to math is an after-school class teacher Dan Boyd nicknamed Math Ramp-up, which he started last year.

Struggling students are encouraged to attend but every student is welcome.

Last year, those who attended regularly improved. All but one made their math targets, Boyd said.

Teachers will soon know if the war on math is making progress. Students took in-house mid-year tests recently.

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.
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