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Workshop Equips Teachers With New Approach to Math: Institute Believes More Challenging Problems Serve to Better Engage Students

  1. August 13, 2007
  2. Amanda Ott, Contributing Writer & Assistant News Editor
  4. http://www.msri.org/communications/articles/attachments/070813dailycal.pdf

A dozen teachers spent their summer vacation learning math puzzles when they attended a local institute’s summer training conference last week.

Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute held a week-long Teacher’s Circle workshop for middle school teachers.

“They are involved in getting to learn a new, dynamic approach that tries to engage and excite students about mathematics,” said Anne Pfister, assistant to the institute’s director.

At the workshop, which lasted almost 10 hours a day, the teachers explored challenging mathematics problems for both themselves and their students in the form of a teacher’s circle, a European style of learning that brings together mathematicians in a group setting.

“We do mathematics all the time,” said workshop organizer Tatiana Shubin. “We thought it was very important they have this full schedule and living together makes a good bonding for them.”

The institute’s teachers came from across the East Bay and included two mathematics teachers from Willard Middle School in Berkeley.

Shubin said the workshop is meant to provide an introductory training for student and teacher workshops that will take place throughout the school year on a weekly basis to provide challenging problems to students who excel.

“The joy of mathematics can only be had if there are really challenging problems, above their levels,” Shubin said. “If it strains their mind they enjoy it.”

A math circle currently exists in Berkeley geared for high school students, but the institute’s associate director Kathy O’Hara said middle school is an ideal age to inspire students.

“It’s an age where kids are still excited about math,” O’Hara said. “We want to get them early. We really just want kids to play around with math.”

Jesse Ragent, an eighth grade algebra teacher at Willard Middle School, said the workshop was a good way to learn problems that can provide challenging materials to all his students.

“I’m always looking for materials that might be useful in my class,” he said. “Classes are heterogeneous and sometimes you aim for a nonexistent middle.”

O’Hara said the workshops are as useful for the students as they are for the teachers, who can discuss any issues and work together.

“It’s another way of creating a network for the teachers so they have support,” O’Hara said.

It would be even more useful with another teacher at the same school, Ragent said.

“Having someone else in the department so we can refresh and remind each other ... there’s less chance it’ll slip into the cracks and be forgotten,” he said.

He said the problems were challenging enough for him, but he looked forward to implementing them in his classroom to add to the class dynamic.

“It was good for me as a middle school math teacher to be exposed to some pretty high-level mathematics and it was invigorating,” he said.