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Originally published Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Education

Teaching future teachers how to make math fun

The six cupcakes, three large and three small, were alike and not alike. One pair was iced in chocolate and decorated in sprinkles. Another pair had sprinkles...

Times Snohomish County Bureau

The six cupcakes, three large and three small, were alike and not alike. One pair was iced in chocolate and decorated in sprinkles. Another pair had sprinkles but was iced in vanilla. The third pair had vanilla icing only.

Besides wanting to eat them, students in a new math class created for future teachers at Edmonds Community College were challenged to see the pairs in mathematical terms — sets, subsets and disjoint sets, which have no relationship to each other.

Edmonds CC launched the math sequence this fall as part of a statewide initiative to increase the amount of math that education majors must take to earn a teaching degree. The emphasis is on activities that can help young students visualize mathematical concepts and stay engaged.

"It's the mathematics they will teach presented in a way they will teach it," said instructor Pat Averbeck, who holds a Ph.D. in math education. "It's active mathematics, more fun and more applicable."

The state has been scrambling to address the poor math skills of many high-school graduates in the wake of widespread failure on the math portion of the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

Just 51 percent of sophomores passed the test in 2006, leading the state to suspend the math requirement for graduation until deficiencies in math instruction and curriculum could be addressed.

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released a draft of new math standards earlier this month and is supposed to finalize those and narrow the number of recommended textbooks by spring.

As part of the overhaul of math education, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges increased the number of math classes required for pre-education majors to improve teachers' understanding of the subject and their strategies for teaching it.

"Elementary teachers needed a stronger background in math," said Loretta Seppanen, assistant director of education services at the state board. "We want elementary teachers to love math so they can help students love math."

At Edmonds CC, the first quarter covers number sense; the second, probability and statistics; and the third, geometry.

Previously, elementary-education students at Edmonds CC took only a college algebra course or basic math for liberal arts. The new math sequence immerses them in the concepts they will have to teach their future students. It's also aimed at easing these future teachers' own anxiety about the subject matter.

"A lot of elementary teachers avoid math as much as possible. That leaks down to students. But if they're doing fun activities in the classroom, the teacher's comfort level will change," Averbeck said.

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For the course final last week, it was the students' turn to devise inventive games to illustrate mathematical concepts. Delana Ghormley, 24, designed the cupcake challenge to demonstrate similarities and differences. Those ideas will eventually lead students to the more abstract analysis of intersections and unions.

One goal of the class, Ghormley said, is for students to understand ways their own students' reasoning may go wrong. It's also to realize that not all kids learn in the same way, or at the same pace.

A California transplant, Ghormley points to her own struggles to master algebra. She failed an intermediate algebra class at another community college three times before she got the right teacher. Suddenly, she aced every test, understood every problem.

"It showed me how important it is for a teacher to be able to explain things in different ways. A lot of teachers, if you say you don't get it, they just raise their voice and give you the same explanation," she said.

Another student, Samantha Nerio, 21, had a similar experience. She had to take algebra twice in high school before the concepts became clear.

It wasn't the teacher, she said, it was needing more time to absorb the material. For her final project in class last week, she had her classmates play the card game War, with variations that involved increasingly challenging manipulations of the numbers on the face of the cards.

"When I was in elementary school, we didn't have math games. No one said, 'You can learn math while playing cards.' I love playing cards," she said.

Averbeck emphasized that playing games isn't enough to teach math. The games have to be followed up with explanations of the underlying ideas, connections and patterns. And he might throw in a worksheet to give students practice in solving the problems.

But, he said, if they aren't engaged from the beginning, they'll conclude it's a boring subject, or too difficult, and check out.

"We're trying to give teachers a repertoire of techniques. There are some students who get it with a textbook and a sample problem. This is for all the other students we didn't used to reach."

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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