kitchen table math, the sequel: a School to Watch

Friday, March 12, 2010

a School to Watch

Seventh-grade math students at Decatur Middle School recently spread out in the classroom and hallways to create a blueprint for a rain forest area at a zoo.

"We're learning about volume, depth, cylinders and cubes," said Tayaba Nadeem, 12.

She and group members Emily Siegman, 12, and Molly Cooper, 13, researched mammals, fish, amphibians, birds and reptiles in the real-life application for math.

"It's a different way to do stuff without using the textbook," Emily said.

That's exactly the point, said Principal Mark Anderson. Getting kids who are used to talking, texting and watching videos engaged in their schoolwork should lead to better test scores, he said.


In honor of their efforts, the Southwestside school has been named one of the state's first three "Schools to Watch."

The program, which was launched in 2002 by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, recognizes successful schools so that their efforts can be duplicated elsewhere. Every three years, schools must reapply to keep the distinction.

The title doesn't mean the school has soaring test scores. In fact, ISTEPscores at Decatur Middle School are flat, with about 60 percent of students passing each year, Anderson said.

"It's not about test scores," he said. "It's about what you're doing to help the kids."

Decatur Middle School started changing the way it teaches three years ago, including more project-based learning in anticipation that Indiana would become a Schools to Watch state, Anderson said.

Decatur Middle School's engaging approach puts it on a select list
by Gretchen Becker
March 11, 2010
Someone needs to make a video of these kids "learning about" volume, depth, cylinders and cubes.

How are they actually learning about volume, depth, cylinders and cubes while they're "researching" [Googling] mammals, fish, amphibians, birds and reptiles?

And how are they using the formulas?

What do they know about the formulas?

Do they remember the formulas?

If they happen to forget one of the formulas, and don't have access to Google, can they derive a more complicated formula from a simpler formula?

Could these kids figure out the formula for obtaining the surface area of cylinder by grasping the fact that the surface area of a cylinder is composed of two circles and a rectangle?

I bet they can't.

That's the problem with applying math to the real world.

Kids don't learn to apply math to math.


SteveH said...

"do stuff"

SteveH said...

I was going to write more, but my mind goes blank.

Anonymous said...

Please Catherine,

Get with it, it's the 21st Century.

They'll have keyboards and computers hanging around their necks like The Trumpet and the Swan. They don't need no stinkin' formulas.


TerriW said...

Well, now you know why they don't have time for that silly, philistine stuff like mastery of math facts, computation and learning algorithms.

Why is it, exactly, that *every* subject has to be geared for highly verbal, mid to high SES girls?

(Because that's who becomes teachers and education specialists?)

I don't have the history of all this quite sussed out -- I wonder how much of this is due to the fact that bright, technically minded women have a wealth of choices in front of them for careers instead of just the old-timey stereotypical teaching or nursing. So, who still goes into education? They tend to get the lowest SAT folks, but additionally folks who are there because it's a "calling." (But is that more of a "social justice" calling than a "teach math" calling?")

I suspect the math knowledge (and nerdy math joy) of math teachers has just gone way, way down. Would the math nerd teachers of yore who these days are programmers/chemists/mathematicians/etc have ever put up with this?

Catherine Johnson said...

where ARE the math nerds?????

my district is as female-dominated as it's possible to be - we are now being told that math has been 'neglected' for the past several years

math has not been '1 of the top 5 priorities'

this is **overt**; central administrators are saying this

and i'm sitting in the audience asking myself, why is this not grounds for firing the whole lot of you today?

Catherine Johnson said...

anyway, now we're gonna get serious about math

how are we gonna get serious about math?

we're gonna NOT adopt Singapore Math 'cause "there is no perfect curriculum"

also, we're gonna hire a math coach

Catherine Johnson said...

also, we are going to teach 21st century skills

Catherine Johnson said...

I will be voting 'no' on the budget

Catherine Johnson said...

All of Westchester County is now obsessed with PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

This is the New Fad Sweeping Our Land: a good school has IN HOUSE EXPERTISE

Which is not the teachers

It's the coaches

Scarsdale has 3!!!!

Catherine Johnson said...




these are the watchwords

Anonymous said...


You may be on to something. Your theory kind of makes sense of some of this.

also, we are going to teach 21st century skills

We're all still waiting for them to teach the 20th century skills.

we're gonna NOT adopt Singapore Math 'cause "there is no perfect curriculum"

Well, some are definitely more perfect than others. I think they are just loathe to admit they made a big mistake.


concernedCTparent said...

math has not been '1 of the top 5 priorities'

this is **overt**; central administrators are saying this

Same in my district. They aren't ashamed to say that our district ELA focused, not math focused. Verbal skills are valued over math and that's supposed to okay. What planet are these people from?

Anonymous said...

Embedded professional development?


concernedCTparent said...

Catherine, it's that stupid tri-state consortium mind-set. It's all the same buzzwords in my distrcit: professional development, math coaches, no perfect curriculum, 21st century skills. My district actually believes we're falling behind because we have no math coaches-- it has nothing to do with Everyday Math and CMP2 and balanced literacy. Nothing.

Crimson Wife said...

I think this type of project math would be great as an enrichment thing for the brightest 10-20% of the class. The kids (like I was) who grasped the concept on the first introduction and don't need to hear it repeated a zillion times. I used to spend probably 90% of the time in school bored out of my mind waiting for the rest of the class to catch on. I would've loved to do something like what's described in the article.

But since it's politically incorrect to acknowledge that some kids are smarter than others, the schools do it with ALL the kids. Even though the majority of them really do need basic math instruction...

Catherine Johnson said...

Interesting (Crimson Wife's comment that a project would have alleviated the boredom)

never thought of it that way

Catherine Johnson said...

Tri-State Consortium??????

I have the Tri-State Consortium to thank for this??

oh, boy

Well, at least the high school math teachers have managed to fend off the Tri-State plans for middle & high school math

(I have no idea what's going on there but I did read the Tri-State report, which lauded Trailblazers and scolded the middle school & high school --- and then: no reforms rolled over the middle and high school. I don't think that's an accident.)

VickyS said...

Cliff Mass of the University of Washington surveyed his Atmospheric Science 101 class at the University of Washington and found the following:

Consider these embarrassing statistics from the exam: The overall grade was 58%

43% did not know the formula for the area of a circle
86% could not do a simple algebra problem (problem 4b)
75% could not do a simple scientific notation problem (1e)
52% could not deal with a negative exponent (2 to the -2)
43% could not do simple long division problem with no remainder!
47% did not know what a cosine was.

Shocking does not begin to describe it. I recommend everyone go over the Seattle's "Where's the Math" website and take a look at the great stuff they've accumulated there as they have been involved in the lawsuit.

Crimson Wife said...

Catherine- I actually think that a better way to deal with the issue of the bright kids being bored is to have a GATE program with a compacted curriculum. But that's even MORE politically incorrect than simply providing enrichment within the framework of a regular class.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought that reform curriculums were just gifted enrichment brought down to the masses.


momof4 said...

I'm with Crimson Wife; accelerate to the limits of ability. There's a whole cohort out there that could run through a serious, content-rich k-12 curriculum across the disciplines in 10 years or less, including APs. Politically incorrect to the mega-max (unlikely to be sufficiently diverse; that's why we have full inclusion, groupwork, differentiated instruction etc.)

I can't begin to count the number of books I read under my school desk while the rest of the class was doing something I'd finished. At least my teachers didn't mind.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm with Crimson Wife, Susan S (hilarious! never had that thought - ) & momof4.

Barry Garelick said...

I don't see this as a project even for gifted kids. Volume of cylinders and the like can be explained fairly readily. Why the "discovery"? How is this enrichment? Oh, because they collect bugs?

I saw something similar in an article we had to read in ed school, about how students in a class had to go outside and map out what an acre was, and then relate that to how many acres of land a highway would displace, and thus, there was the outdoor discovery aspect and social justice aspect of it, so everyone was happy. This project lasted about a week, by the way. I remarked in class that I recalled in 7th grade a teacher asking us if we knew what an acre was. No one did. So we had us look it up in the dictionary. It was defined in terms of "rods" which we then had to look up. Eventually it got down to square yards, so the teacher had us convert an acre to square yards, and then to square miles (which we were somehow able to do without going outside). (It was a fraction of a square mile by the way). The whole lesson took 20 minutes and I remembered it for years. Of course, that's because I'm not gifted.

Anonymous said...

"where ARE the math nerds?????"

Most math nerds don't want to teach elementary school math. Those that do may not care for 'social justice' or Piaget but they *are* interested in pushing hi-tech and set theory at the little ones.

The system works in Asia because everyone has a deep understanding of math, not just the nerds.


VickyS said...

This is enrichment but it's not necessarily doing any favors for the kids involved.

Enrichment is what schools or districts do when they aren't willing to accelerate. It tricks parents into thinking something special is being done for their children. And some kids dislike enrichment activities because they usually involve more work but no forward progress; the child is just running in place and knows it.

Here is an excerpt (empasis added) from a document prepared by the Portland School District:

Acceleration is distinguished from enrichment, which fills the time of children who learn more quickly by offering materials or activities that do not allow faster progress through the established curriculum. Enrichment activities may include introducing students to other fields or activities, such as art, music, journal writing, clubs or field trips; assigning additional work at the same level of difficulty, or assigning the advanced student various school responsibilities such as classroom aide. For example, a mathmatics enrichment program for a fifth grade student, instead of introducing the sixth-grade curriculum which includes decimals and percentages, might use more complex word problems that can be solved with the student's existing ability to multiply and divide but need more time than the problems given to other students. Or it might include subjects not normally offered in fifth grade mathematics such as tesselation or chess. Or it might simply mean assigning twice as many problems as other children have.

VickyS said...

And what's up with the incessant tesselations, anyway? Golly my kid can't add or subtract but you should see her kick butt when it comes time to tesselate!

le radical galoisien said...

Tesselations were part of the Singapore math curriculum ... I think P5 or P6.

I think graph theory is overlooked too much. I mean, Euler did sort of pioneer much of the field. Then of course many interesting childhood problems are also NP-complete problems (knapsack problem), which have real life analogues.

ChemProf said...

"Or it might simply mean assigning twice as many problems as other children have."

And what a way to convince a bright kid to keep his or her head down and mouth shut!

Ari-free said...

More complex problems with the same concept is the good kind of enrichment. For example, I would much rather see students really know their algebra and geometry than to zoom right into calculus. Accelerators may be OK with the concepts but they won't be prepared for the sudden bombardment of multi-step problems and proofs that are expected of college level math.

As for NP complete, remember that old Corliss Archer TV show that was posted here? ( You don't see TV like that anymore.


Catherine Johnson said...

I don't see this as a project even for gifted kids. Volume of cylinders and the like can be explained fairly readily. Why the "discovery"? How is this enrichment? Oh, because they collect bugs?

I remember a comment on a list awhile back saying that if you want hands-on math, teach kids shop.

To me, the 'interdisciplinary' aspect of this project wastes time. Recently C. and a friend did a scale drawing for geometry class. They didn't Google anything; they spent all of their time measuring the dimensions of the room, converting to scale, and constructing the drawing.

That is a valuable activity (at least for C., who isn't mathematically gifted.)

Public schools act as if childhood lasts forever. At least, that's sure the way it felt here. At Hogwarts, there is intense time-consciousness because they have to cover so much material in so little time. (MUCH shorter school year than public schools. The year there is so much shorter that it's a running joke amongst faculty and students.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Enrichment is what schools or districts do when they aren't willing to accelerate.

That is literally the case here.

When the school adopted Trailblazers, they ended acceleration. Recently the superintendent said that Trailblazers is premised on mixed-ability grouping; if you're not teaching all kids together, it isn't Trailblazers, basically.

Parents of gifted kids spent a year of their lives petitioning the administration for better curriculum for their children, and the upshot was that the district hired a math enrichment specialist who does pull-out.

When my school dropped acceleration, it adopted 'enrichment.'

"Enrichment" delivered by an enrichment teacher costs more, too.

rocky said...


Since 17 prisoners outnumber 9 cops, they HAVE to outnumber them somewhere, whether in the jail, the car, or the courthouse. I think I will call it the "mean prisoner theorem" and Corliss can speculate that maybe not all the prisoners are mean, but at least some of them are...

(attack of the sillies)

lgm said...

Accelerate in public school means 'offer the course a year earlier to part of the cohort.' The course content and depth is identical, whether it's taken sooner or later. Districts like mine pass this off as 'honors'.

Ari-free said...

What is a math enrichment specialist? Someone who actually knows math or someone with even more ideas for artsy projects?


le radical galoisien said...

let's not abuse art now. what most children do in schools isn't art but drudgery.

there is a lot of mathematics in art. I was a big perfectionist in my HS art class so when it came to landscape drawing I broke out the protractor and compass quite frequently. unfortunately my art teacher never even discussed the mathematics of perspective.

one thing that gets glossed over quite frequently is the whole dynamics of vanishing points and focal points. an art class would be a good math class if you did it properly.

le radical galoisien said...

the biggest mind-expanding concept for that age that is teachable I think is "degrees of freedom" and "constraint"

(in fact it's still a mind-expanding concept when you reach linear algebra)

in Singapore for the GEP stream (which is now going defunct) I think the 7 Bridges of Konigsberg problem gets presented around age 13-14.

Ari-free said...

Art is also taught in a constructivist manner and most people won't just pick it up. I sure wish I had Andrew Loomis' books when I was a kid. Unfortunately, the full editions are only available online (for example


le radical galoisien said...

I actually kinda liked the way my Singapore school taught art.

When I entered art in secondary one, I was the most anti-art person you could imagine.

When I exited secondary two, I was raving about the department's impressionist philosophy.

I haven't had a comparable art education experience like that. I experienced so many incredible epiphanies under that department.

CassyT said...

le radical galoisien said...

Tessellations were part of the Singapore math curriculum ... I think P5 or P6.

Here's more than you probably wanted to know about state standards and tessellations.

In the 2007 MOE Mathematics syllabus, they are in P4 (p. 24):
• recognising shapes that can tessellate,
• identifying the unit shape in a tessellation,
• making different tessellations with a given shape,
• drawing a tessellation on dot paper,
• designing and making patterns.

The 2001 syllabus, however has them in the p5 EM1/EM2 streams(?)

I seem to recall seeing tessellations on the 3rd grade AIMS test in AZ. What I was remembering was wrong, we were only required to cover:

PO 1: Recognize same shape in
different positions (turn/rotation).

The sequence on the 2003 AZ Standards was:

Grade 4:
*PO 2.Identify a tessellation.

Grade 5:
*PO 2. Describe the transformations that created a tessellation.

Grade 6:
*PO 2. Perform elementary
transformations to create a

In 2008, AZ adopted new standards. AZ Standards (2008 version)

The first time tessellations appear is in 8th grade.
The sequence for Transformation of Shapes is now:

Grade 3:
*PO 1. Identify a translation, reflection, or rotation and model its effect on a 2-dimensional figure.
*PO 2. Identify, with justification, all lines of symmetry in a 2-dimensional figure.

Grade 4: nothing
Grade 5: See grade 4

Grade 6:
*PO 1. Identify a simple translation or reflection and model its effect on a 2-dimensional figure on a coordinate plane using all four quadrants.
*PO 2. Draw a reflection of a polygon in the coordinate plane using a horizontal or vertical line of reflection.

The first time tessellations appear in CO on the CSAP frameworks are in grade 10!

And finally, I thought I'd better check Massachusetts, since their standards are highly esteemed.

Grade 3 & 4: Not Learning Concepts, but Exploratory Concepts and Skills
* Predict and describe results of transformations (e.g., translations, rotations, and reflections) on two-dimensional shapes.

Grades 5 & 6: Also under Exploratory Concepts and Skills
* Investigate tessellations (tilings).

Grades 7 & 8: Learning Standards
8.G.6 Predict the results of transformations on unmarked or coordinate planes and draw the transformed figure, e.g., predict how tessellations transform under translations, reflections, and rotations.