To teach better, this cohort returns to math class

This math class sounds a lot like an elementary math class.

A chorus of students says, "Every square is a rhombus. There are rhombuses that are not squares."

“Why is that?” the instructor asks.

Where it turns a bit different is that after the instructor gets an answer to her question, a discussion follows on the proper use of rhombus in the plural form. (Latin version is rhombi, but the Americanized English version tends to be rhombuses.)

Students then repeat similar statements for trapezoids and rectangles.

But instead of these being first- or fourth-grade students, they are first- and fourth-grade teachers, and kindergarten, second- and third-grade teachers, too, 40 of them in all, at Burnett Hall on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In the building just to the west of Burnett, there are 40 teachers of fourth through eighth grades in Avery Hall, all teachers from Title I schools in Lincoln Public Schools. (Title I funds are part of the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) authorization. Funding provides extensive supplemental services to high poverty schools which support programs that improve and meet high performance and content standards.)

Kati Stauffer is a fourth-grade teacher at Saratoga Elementary School, 2215 S. 13th St. She's one of three Saratoga teachers in two groups, and one of two in the Math in the Middle class.

She and the others are learning math at a deeper level as part of their work toward master’s degrees.

"I wouldn't go into this detail, but being able to understand it better myself, I can then make it simpler for them to understand," Stauffer said.

The classes themselves require quick absorption of materials. Students might stay until the late evening hours to complete homework before returning home to their families.

As a first-year LPS teacher, Lisa Bohaty agrees that learning the math in more complex situations helps her simplify some things for her students and helps her get to know teachers who are her new co-workers.

"It's been a good opportunity to meet and collaborate with grade levels, some SPED (special education) teachers, I've worked with fourth-grade teachers and kindergarten teachers,” said Bohaty, who will be a first-grade teacher at Campbell Elementary School, 2200 Dodge St. “So I'm learning the spectrum of what's being taught elsewhere."

The classes, for both Primarily Math and Math in the Middle, would not be taught if it weren’t for this cohort of 80 teachers, chosen from a list of applicants numbering about twice that many. (Read more about the history and coursework.)  


Both consist of day-long, two-week courses where group work across grade levels is emphasized. The Math in the Middle cohort will meet for more coursework in July.

While these are teachers, they become math students in order to understand ways to teach math better.

"I've learned a lot more about in-depth thinking," Bohaty said. "I wouldn't teach all that but the learning process has been eye-opening."

In the Math in the Middle classroom - a crowded room with multiple teachers constantly observing and instructing - the current topic is fractions.

“My students struggle with fractions,” said Jacob Cathey, a teacher at Lefler Middle School, 1100 S. 48th St. “They are often handcuffed by the rules and procedures of fractions, and so one of the things this class has provided me is a deeper understanding of fractions, and ways to teach them.”

The teachers in the class teach many different levels of math. They also work with students with different learning strategies. By having fourth-grade teachers at his table, Cathey said, it allows him to see how younger students are being taught.

He can use the same strategies and common language and concepts with his seventh-graders.

“It gives me so much more insight into what level they are learning things: the changes that are coming, how it's being taught, what to expect when those kids reach me,” he said.

Most teachers in the two cohorts have at least one other teacher from their school in the class. That will matter most when school is back in session, where feedback can be nearly instant.

"The other part is to the other person from my school can keep me accountable, and I can keep her accountable," said Stauffer.

Like the difference between learning the piano and playing the piano, math requires a deeper set of skills just to teach.

Joann Herrington, a first-grade teacher at Belmont, 3425 N. 14th St., used that metaphor to describe why she’s making a sacrifice to commit time to learning math and how to teach math.

She herself did not enjoy math as a middle or high school student.

“It's so worth it because I’m determined that my students are not going to go through what I went through,” Herrington said. “They aren't going to sit in class and say, ‘I don't get it.’ I want them to have a deep understanding of it. I want them to play with ideas.”

Published: June 12, 2014, Updated: July 24, 2014


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