Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Teachers try to spice up math
Classes emphasize links to music and art
By William A. Valente
Poughkeepsie Journal

Darryl Bautista/Poughkeepsie Journal
Math instructor Jim Bennett of the Upton Lake Christian
School holds the prototype of his algebra journal. Math and art meet in
the journals, a yearlong project designed to help students learn mathematics. 

Darryl Bautista/Poughkeepsie Journal
Students at the Upton Lake Christian School work on their
algebra journals. 
As students struggle to achieve higher math scores across the region, state
and nation, educators are coming up with creative ways to raise student
interest  and grades.
When math teacher Jim Bennett pondered the problem of getting students
more involved, he decided to use his experience as an artist.
Bennett, who teaches at Upton Lake Christian School in the Town of Clinton,
has created a math journal that lays out the principles of algebra by incorporating
illustrations, reallife examples and biographies of famous mathematicians.
He gives each of his students a blank journal at the beginning of the
year and it becomes the student's notebook, homework pad and textbook for
the year. Bennett supplements those materials with work sheets.
One page explains certain underlying mathematical principles of music.
Students sketch part of a piano keyboard and the corresponding notes on
a musical scale.
Although national math scores have improved at the elementary and middle
school levels over the past decade, U.S. students still fare worse in math
than their counterparts in other developed countries.
Some students take to the subject with a natural talent, but many wonder
what reallife relevance math has for them.
To help answer that question, Bennett designed a mural project for his
precalculus class and a mapping project for geometry students.
''These are art projects that create a yearlong theme,'' Bennett said.
''And they are also designed to create a certain excitement in the classroom.''
National authorities say math skills are necessary to keep the United
States in the forefront of technology, which leads to improvements in everyone's
quality of life.
U.S. does well early
According to the Business Coalition for Education Reform, U.S. students
score above the international average in mathematics, outperformed by only
seven countries, at the elementary level. But by eighth grade, students
score below the international average in mathematics, and that trend continues
through high school.
Progress is necessary to produce engineers, technicians and computerliterate
workers, said Chan Prasad, an engineer and Wappingers school board member.
''Being an increasingly technological society, we have to put more emphasis
on math than before,'' he said. ''Math and English are the two essential
subjects for going through life. Once there is improvement in those skills,
students naturally improve in other areas as well.''
In an effort to boost exam performance, educators in the state are taking
a new look at how math is taught and perceived.
One obstacle: parents' perception that math is difficult or inaccessible.
''That sends the message to the kids that it's OK not to like math,
not to do well in math,'' said Debbie Kafdas, a Poughkeepsie Middle School
math teacher.
Revamping curriculum, bringing in reallife examples of math, having
guest speakers, using word associations and playing games are among the
methods teachers use to get students involved.
''I get up there and just try to act silly,'' said Jill Sitler, a math
teacher at Arlington Middle School. ''Whatever works.''
For schools in New York, the challenge of improving math skills has
been highlighted by the phasing in of standardized tests over the past
five years.
The new exams focus more on reallife examples and word problems, and
less on multiple choice answers, a trend many teachers have incorporated
into the classroom for years.
''They're asking the students to look at patterns, to achieve an understanding
of what math is really all about,'' said Agnes Laub, district director
of math and science in the Hyde Park school district. ''Let's face it,
you still have to know your math facts, but pages and pages of rote exercises
isn't always the best approach.''
Water helps teach fractions
Using blocks, water and differentsized containers to demonstrate fractions
is part of fourthgrader Risa Pomerselig's math curriculum at Lenape Elementary
School in the New Paltz school district.
''We were finding the fractions and estimating the fractions of how
much water there was left in the glass,'' the 9yearold said of the exercise.
''And I think that was the funnest part of math so far.''
Standardized math exams are now given in grades four and eight. Performance
on the exams has been below expectations.
Educators are particularly concerned about low test scores at the middleschool
level.
Dutchess County BOCES recently received a $128,000 grant to develop
programs to improve student performance at the eighthgrade level in six
area school districts which show the greatest need in math: The districts
are Beacon, Hyde Park, Pine Plains, Poughkeepsie, Wappingers and Webutuck.
New programs include ongoing staff development, onsite teacher mentoring
and coordination of curriculum at different grade levels.
Educators largely attribute poor middleschool performance to the social
pressures of young adolescent life. By high school, students tend to become
more practical.
''You start to realize how important it really is when you start looking
at colleges and scholarships,'' said Rachel Barton, a senior at Upton Lake.
''And you see how expensive college is.''
In addition to standardized tests in grades four and eight, New York
high school students must also complete math courses and pass math Regents
exams.
Math A is now required; it covers such topics as algebra, geometry,
statistics and logic, typically in three semesters.
The current freshman class, and all following classes, will need a Regents
diploma to graduate. School districts' changes are aimed to help all students
pass the math exams.
''We've done some work,'' Laub said. ''But there's still a lot more
to be done.''
Relevant Web link
Math teacher Jim Bennett has a Web site, http://www.mathsquad.com/ which includes descriptions and free downloads of all his projects. 