Column: Math is easier when chocolate chip cookies are at stakeI had to look twice. Principal Obst was standing in the school hallway directing parents toward the music concert. (Expected visual.) What arrested my attention was the massive snake wrapped around the woman’s torso. (Utterly unexpected visual.)
I had to look twice. Principal Obst was standing in the school hallway pleasantly directing parents toward the music concert. (Expected visual.) What arrested my attention was the bright yellow, massive snake wrapped around the woman’s torso. (Utterly unexpected visual.) There is something unique about a principal who would choose to wear a classroom pet for the fun of it. I wanted to find out what motivated her.
As the principal of Piedmont Elementary School, Mrs. Obst comes to education by an atypical route. She began her adult career as a painter and millwright at the Potlatch company. She moved on to tinsmith and mechanic. Her days were spent 80 feet in the air maintaining factory equipment. Life experiences and the encouragement of friends led her to reach in a different direction ... toward education.
She taught middle school math for years and found that the kids responded enthusiastically to math problems couched within the context of real-life problems. Textbooks garnered glazed eyes. But when she brought in the tools used to maintain her motorcycle, kids would get out of their desks and dig into the metric system in order to understand how to fix stuff. Quickly forming a hypothesis about the value of engineering integrated within the classroom, Obst began to search out ways to include science, technology and design within the math classes. Kids blossomed.
As Obst moved into administrative roles within the school district, she remembered the significance of classroom experience with kids. At the same time a nationwide educational agenda called STEM began to move to the forefront. STEM (S - Science; T-Technology; E-Engineering; M-Math) studies uses an interdisciplinary approach to help kids grab onto global concepts (physics, mechanics, biology, etc.) while improving the standard academic ones (reading, number sense, comprehension, etc.). STEM removes traditional barriers between science, technology, engineering and math, and instead focuses on innovation and the applied process of designing so as to authenticate real-world problems using current tools and technology.
A picture of a well-choreographed STEM curriculum can be seen in the Piedmont School summer educational enrichment program, where engineering concepts were laced together with science and reading classes. A purposeful integration was the goal.
Obst waves away the “edu-speak” by simplifying the concept. Schools naturally break the days into blocks and categories. It is difficult to integrate subjects. So within the reading blocks of time, the elementary schools are reading books about fascinating science. If a child is engaged because he finds the topic stimulating, then he is motivated to work harder on his reading. During the math blocks of time, teachers are coming up with real-world problems for the students to consider. Again, if the student is curious then the student is motivated to investigate math deeper. I know if I ask my son to divide 12 by 4 it takes time and many hashes on paper to figure out. But if I ask him, “Hey, I’ve got 12 cookies here and four kids. How many — “ “Three!” he yells out. For some reason, he can think more clearly when chocolate chips are at stake. Obst is quick to point out that at home, parents can seamlessly work on academics by simply having children help with problem solving.
“Nothing is as critical as parenting,” says Obst. Parents are their children’s first and most consistent teachers. When parents are dealing with real-world problems they need to pull their kids into the discussion. She suggested parent and child going to the grocery store together, with a budgeted amount of money. Explain that this is the money that has to go toward food and no more. The parent should listen to the child’s solutions and they can then troubleshoot together on how to get what they need without spending more than they have.
Managing a home provides a constant source of problems needing solutions, and the really effective parents teach their children how to think through the issues. Obst says the home is the perfect place to integrate learning topics. Teachers depend on parents to help their children begin working through out-of-the-box solutions to life’s challenges.
Our schools are trying some innovative ideas to get kids learning. Their job is easier and more potent when kids come in having been taught how to ask questions and seek out answers. If you have a child, that’s your job as the parent. Fortunately you don’t need to wear a boa to do it, but I know a bunch of elementary school students who would respect you all the more for it.
Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota (and lives in Duluth). E-mail her at email@example.com.