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Neag faculty train teachers to help kids solve verbal math problems

by Robert Frahm - September 8, 2008


Most public school students can do simple math such as multiplication and division, but many have trouble applying those skills to real problems, according to teachers attending a University of Connecticut seminar.

About two dozen Hartford teachers worked with professors from the Neag School of Education during a week-long summer seminar on strategies to help students solve problems requiring them to read, choose an appropriate mathematical approach, and explain their work.

“When they see a word problem, a lot of students just look at it and say, ‘I can’t do it,’” said veteran teacher Meg Borowski, a math coach at Hartford’s Batchelder School.

Borowski and others played mathematical games, practiced problem-solving techniques, and created new classroom lessons under the direction of UConn math educators Megan Staples and Mary Truxaw. Staples and Truxaw are co-directors of a project known as ACCESS (Academic Content and Communications Equals Student Success).

A key goal of the project is to improve student performance on open-ended, multiple-step math problems on the Connecticut Mastery Test for grades three through eight and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test for grade 10 – the chief benchmarks of academic progress in the state’s public schools.

Those problems, designed to test students’ reasoning ability, have proven to be some of the most difficult on the annual statewide tests.

Across the state, 60 percent of last year’s eighth-graders, for example, were unable to master the “mathematical applications” part of the Mastery Test. In poor, urban schools, the results were worse. In Hartford, 88 percent of eighth-graders missed the mark.

“We contend that if you help kids with language and higher-order thinking ... it will help to promote the higher test scores the districts are concerned about,” Truxaw said.

“A huge issue is language and mathematics,” she said. “In Hartford schools, in particular, English is not the first language of many of the students.”

Understanding language is critical on tests that not only require students to read the problem accurately, but to provide written explanations of their work, teachers say.

“Almost all my students are English language learners or second generation immigrants,” said Steve Gengel, a geometry teacher at Hartford’s Bulkeley High School. “Even though it’s math, language is a primary issue. As soon as we deal with word problems, it all falls apart.”

In addition to outlining strategies to help non-English speaking students, UConn educators taught lessons on topics such as algebraic reasoning and proportional reasoning.

Staples, the project co-director, said the ACCESS program will continue during the school year, as teachers form teams and meet regularly to discuss strategies and create new problem-solving lessons.

The lessons will be posted on the website of UConn’s Center for Research in Math Education. Teachers in the project are from Batchelder, Kennelly, and Bulkeley public schools and Watkinson, a private school in Hartford.

UConn’s Neag School has had a longstanding partnership with Hartford schools. The ACCESS project, supported by a $112,000 grant from the Connecticut Department of Higher Education, is an expansion of a program that operated on a small scale last year at Batchelder and Bulkeley schools.

“We saw great improvement in our kids’ responses,” Paige Calhoun, a fourth-grade teacher at Batchelder, said during the summer workshop. “It worked so well last year that I wanted to come back.”

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