In Summer, Math Teachers Share Tricks of the Trade

By Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

In Summer, Math Teachers Share Tricks of the Trade


Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On a steamy July morning recently, a small band of Newark, N.J., public school math teachers is tussling with a decidedly unsummerlike activity: finding six different formulas for converting temperatures from Celsius to Fahrenheit.

Dressed in T-shirts, sandals, and jeans, these teachers are crowded around a table, listening to exhortations by an instructor.

"That's a good formula, a good little algebra problem for your kids," he says enthusiastically, glancing down at one participant's solution. "But now let's see five more."

Learning to see beyond the obvious in teaching math is what this seminar is all about. The three instructors energetically working with the Newark teachers this morning are part of the Exeter Math Institute, a program sponsored by Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation in Chevy Chase, Md.

In some ways, the EMI represents a meeting of two different worlds. The instructors working in the summer program are all full- time teachers at the elite private school, accustomed to offering seminar-style classes to groups as small as a dozen of some of the nation's most highly prepared students.

But in the summer, they hit the road as part of EMI, and travel to low-income urban school districts, where they share their methods with teachers. This year, the Exeter teachers conducted workshops in Dallas, Fort Worth, Memphis, and Newark. The teachers who attend are paid for their time.

For the local teachers, it's a chance to learn something new. "I like to see how the other half lives," says Charles Royal, a math staff developer at a Newark middle school.

For the Exeter teachers as well, EMI offers exposure to another experience. "We live in a sheltered world," says David Arnold, the instructor looking for the temperature conversion formulas. "This gives us a chance to see what's really going on out there, to understand what it's like to work with huge classes, less-motivated kids. This really brings it home."

EMI began in 1992 as a month-long immersion program held on the Exeter campus. But starting in 1997, the Exeter instructors took to the road.

The courses treat topics like applying technology in the classroom, using graphing calculators, and creating hands-on activities. Math teachers can sharpen their own math skills, and also observe some of the Exeter methods.

In fact, Eric Bergofsky, an instructor and the founder of EMI, says he sees the program as driven more by pedagogy than content. The teachers get a chance to see the style of education promoted at Exeter, which he describes as based fundamentally on the belief that learning should be active, rather than passive. …

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