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Georgia teachers spend summer hours sharpening math instruction

In the third-floor classrooms of Tucker High School last week, as summer heated asphalt outside, Georgia math teachers were huddling in circles sharing strategies, or perching on chairs to sketch out graphs, or gathering, by hand, the statistics associated with dolphin-therapy patients.


As the job market changes and the reach of technology spreads, it is as important as it has ever been for students to leave their schooling with a strong understanding of mathematical concepts. Rigorous math and science standards are increasingly seen as key components of global competitiveness.


That means students – even those who struggle with math, for whom it does not come naturally – need math, and need the logic skills and critical thinking it sharpens.


In those rooms at Tucker High School, teachers took up that task. It was the first of seven Mathematics Summer Academies offered by the Georgia Department of Education, all featuring sessions led by Georgia educators.


“Guided by teacher feedback and supporting research findings, the 2014 Mathematics Summer Academy Program will offer the same series of interactive grade level/high school course sessions at each site,” said Sandi Woodall, director of GaDOE’s mathematics program. “Each session is focused on the enhancement of content understanding for the particular grade level or high school course that the participant teaches. A cadre of Georgia’s master educators crafted the content for the fifteen 12-hour courses and will deliver the professional learning experience to peers within this summer’s academy program.”


At the Tucker workshop, Coordinate Algebra teachers collected their own personal data – birthday month, miles traveled to reach the high school – on sheets of white paper taped to the walls, then experimented with ways students could learn to display and examine similar data.


Analytic Geometry teachers carefully folded tissue-thin paper into parabolas, talking as they worked about interactive learning and how to show a concept so that it provokes real understanding, rather than simply talking about it. They practiced grading formative assessments. They discussed ways to challenge students to go further, rather than experiencing the mental shut-down that difficult subjects sometimes provoke.


Kindergarten teachers worked on their questioning strategies, practicing on each other – one teacher in a pair taking the place of a kindergarten student, displaying their pitch-perfect understanding of how a five-year-old would react, what they would say, and what tone they would say it in. They worked on using questions to narrow down that five-year-old understanding, to grasp what the student really knew and fill in the gaps.


Teachers across content areas explored curriculum resources. They discussed ways to personalize learning and address the needs of the struggling student, the on-target student and the accelerated student alike. They spent time unpacking common mathematical misperceptions (if there is a 50 percent chance of rain on Wednesday and a 50 percent chance on Thursday, for example, the probability of it raining both days is not 50 percent).


In every room was an effort to get beyond “pure math” and reach “contextual math” – math that students can understand because they can see it in context.


“They love that context,” instructor Adrian Throop told a room full of teachers. “They don’t know that they love statistics.”


For some adults, math is a blur – something struggled with in childhood and glazed past in adult life – but, when genuinely understood, it can open up countless doors.


The math instruction taking place in Georgia is the exact opposite of throwing out information and hoping it hits. Teachers are putting in the hours necessary to teach kids math that they can experience – math they can understand.


And, as they do, those doors will swing open for students.