ACT NOW in MATH Program Helps Improve Mathematics Teacher Preparation

Posted: September 15, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

According to a report published earlier this year by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a sharp falloff in mathematics achievement in the United States begins when students reach middle school and algebra course work commences.

The report also shows the need for improving mathematics teacher preparation and professional development to improve pre-K–12 student learning.

Two Mason faculty members recently collaborated with local public schools to attack these problems.

Jennifer Suh
Jennifer Suh
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Suh

Jennifer Suh, assistant professor of mathematics education in the College of Education and Human Development, and Padhu Seshaiyer, associate professor of mathematical sciences in the College of Science, worked with an elementary mathematics specialist and middle school Algebra I teacher from Fairfax County on a project called ACT NOW in MATH: Algebraic Connections and Technology in Middle Grades Math. The project is funded by a grant from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia,

The main goal of the project was to support teachers in transforming their teaching styles to bring more algebraic connections to what they taught in middle grades mathematics. Other goals were to help teachers re-examine the existing curriculum and bring out the algebraic reasoning that was embedded in the arithmetic they already taught.

The project targeted teachers from schools with a low-income and diverse student population. The first phase, completed in August, involved 41 teachers who participated in a two-week institute that focused on making algebraic connections at all levels of elementary and middle school mathematics, with an emphasis on integrating technology.

Padhu Seshaiyer
Padhu Seshaiyer
Photo courtesy of Padhu Seshaiyer

“Throughout the two-week program, teachers were immersed in a problem-solving environment and learned how to put themselves in the shoes of a student,” says Suh. “The experiences they had working together built up their confidence and helped them develop a positive and productive attitude toward mathematics that they can pass on to their students.”

During the two-week program, teachers participated in research-based practices and model lessons using a variety of mathematics tools and technology. Teachers also engaged in activities that connected algebraic content with pedagogical strategies through problem solving.

One of the problems teachers worked on included the “handshake problem” in which teachers determined how many handshakes were possible between a certain number of people. Another problem analyzed was the “pizza toppings combination problem” in which teachers determined the total number of possible pizzas with a variety of toppings.

“Because students learn mathematics in a variety of ways, such as pictorially or algebraically, teachers have to relearn the ways they teach mathematics education,” says Seshaiyer. “By relating mathematics to real-life situations and presenting a problem in different ways, a teacher can capture more students.”

Throughout the program, teachers kept a mathematician’s reflective journal in which they responded to assigned problems.

The reflective materials revealed that at first, teachers felt frustrated and afraid to tackle the algebra problems, but became more confident as the course continued. In addition, teachers realized that it was necessary for them to “relearn” the algebraic concepts through a problem-solving approach because they were not originally taught in that manner.

During the second phase, which will take place this fall, the teachers will undertake lesson studies in their respective schools, then share their experiences and analyze student work to determine if the methods they learned during the summer program were effective.

In addition, teachers will attend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in April 2009 to share their experiences.

The teachers who participated will earn three graduate-level credits at Mason.

For more information about ACT NOW in MATH, contact Suh at 703-993-9119 or Seshaiyer at 703-993-9787.

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