Teachers learn to ‘master’ math

This summer, a group of 13 middle school teachers fed their passions for math as part of the inaugural class of a program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to create “mathematics masters.”

The idea is to strengthen the teachers’ knowledge in the subject so they can help their students build strong math skills.

“We want to move students from good to great (in math), and we think these teachers are the ones to do that,” said Peter Sheppard, interim head of the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The university received a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to launch the Louisiana Mathematics Masters in the Middle program, and 13 teachers from Iberia, Lafayette and Vermilion parishes were selected as the first “masters.” Next summer a new group of seven will start the program for a total of 20 “math masters.”

The program provides professional development to middle school math teachers as a way to bolster student achievement and interest in the science, technology, engineering and math career fields.

Entry in the program was selective and the application process included classroom observations of the teachers in action. The 13 teachers selected for the inaugural class, all of whom hold a master’s degree, will receive a $10,000 annual stipend during the five-year program.

Their first year is focused on professional development with graduate-level courses taught by university math and education faculty. In June, the teachers took courses in math pedagogy and numbers theory. They had a brief break before delving into a three-week geometry course in July.

After the teachers return to work, their college courses continue in the fall and spring semesters online with some face-to-face class time. Though they’ll receive their specialist certification next summer, they’ll continue to take a course every July while they’re in the program. These continuing education courses will “express the beauty of math” and feature special topics, such as a K-8 calculus course, Sheppard said.

Keeping up with the content and homework takes extreme dedication to master the graduate-level topics, said Mary Lou Jumonville, a UL-Lafayette math instructor working with the teachers.

“They’re willing to struggle, and they exhibit endurance,” Jumonville said.

As part of the program, the teachers also will teach an intensive math camp program for middle school students, develop professional learning communities at their own schools to share what they’ve learned, and mentor aspiring teachers taking courses at UL-Lafayette.

By next summer, the teachers will have earned enough college credits to receive an elementary (K-8) math specialist certification. The university is the first in the state to offer the certification, Sheppard said

“It’s a credential that states these teachers have the math knowledge and instructional knowledge to be math leaders on their campuses and feeder schools, which is critically important because of the shift to Common Core,” he said.

The Common Core State Standards is a set of standardized, rigorous learning benchmarks adopted by 45 states that will be implemented in Louisiana public classrooms in August. Under the Common Core curriculum, math students will be required to show and explain their answers, rather than simply using rote formulas.

“Instead of wider, it’s deeper,” said Natalie Guzzetta Davis, a teacher at Rene Rost Middle in Kaplan, referring to how teachers will need to adapt their lessons to align with the new standards.

Through the UL-Lafayette courses, the teachers were taught strategies to help their students make connections between a skill and its relevancy in their lives, said Heather Olson, a teacher at Edgar Martin Middle School.

“Some of the procedures I’ve taught in the past don’t promote conceptual understanding. It’s more procedural,” Davis said.

“This is digging deeper into teaching concepts in many different ways,” said Katie Boudreaux, a teacher at Belle Place Middle in New Iberia. “There’s more than one way to solve a problem.”

Olson agreed: “Now, I can tell kids why it works. That conceptual understanding helps with procedural understanding.”

The courses also take teachers “out of their comfort zone,” Davis said. “We’re using different number systems to investigate different properties.

“There’s this other world of numbers that deepen your understanding of concepts and help you see the patterns and relationships of concepts.”

Boudreaux added: “It provides us the opportunity to see the beauty of numbers and number theory.”