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Area teachers learn more ways to demystify math, engage students

From left: Tami Meyer, fifth grade math teacher at Laura MacArthur Elementary, Patti Bambenek, district math specialist and Nancy Broman, math interventionist for Myers-Wilkins Elementary, put their heads together while working on an exercise to help students become more engaged in math during a workshop at the College of St. Scholastica Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Math teachers from Duluth elementary and middle schools work out ways to get students more involved in math studies during a workshop to strengthen STEM education. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Kelly Vittorio (left) and Lindsey Ruhnke, both fourth grade teachers at Stellar Maris Academy, work on an exercise in student engagement during a workshop Tuesday at the College of St. Scholastica. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Jill Long, program coordinator for elementary education on the St. Paul campus, leads a workshop to teach Duluth area teachers how to improve their instruction and classroom results during a session held at the College of St. Scholastica Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

It can be a chore to get kids excited about math — the school subject with a reputation for being hard to love and even harder to do — but a group of Duluth-area teachers spent time this month learning ways to do just that.

The College of St. Scholastica held a weeklong workshop for area elementary and middle school teachers in an effort to help them strengthen math instruction skills, find ways to use technology in their classrooms and get the attention of students.

Math gets a bad rap for being difficult and boring, and the old ways of teaching it helped form that reputation, said Donna Kirk, a math instructor at St. Scholastica and director of the Improving Teacher Quality workshop.

"There is continual research done on how we learn, how we best think," she said, and how those things are done "is a moving target."

Today's teachers are learning that the stereotypical setup of standing at the front of the class and talking at your students, lined up in rows of desks, isn't the most effective way to teach, at least not during the entire class period. This is especially the case with subjects like math, where kids benefit from visual, hands-on work, talking over problems with fellow classmates and thinking creatively.

"My kids are at white board tables of four," said Ordean East Middle School math teacher Jane Juten. "They work together. If they get it wrong, they can go to another team. If that doesn't work, they come to me. ... I say to my kids, there are a lot of teachers in this classroom. I am only one of them."

One session this week focused on the best ways to engage students for different types of math instruction.

Instead of having kids plot out an addition number line on a piece of paper, bring them outside and do it in chalk on the sidewalk or go to the gym and do it with masking tape, Kirk said, as visual and hands-on work brings about the important "a-ha" moment more quickly.

You can't do it every day, she said, but sprinkling that sort of thing in does wonders in keeping kids interested.

Instructors at CSS emphasized that different types of learners exist in each class, and educators need to figure out each of those to ensure teaching style is switched up to meet everyone's needs.

"We all teach what's comfortable to us," said Jill Long, an assistant professor at St. Scholastica and coordinator of the elementary education completion program. "But learning something new and trying something new benefits students."

Kelsey Holt, a fifth grade teacher at Lowell Elementary, said the workshop has brought out the importance of helping kids believe that time and effort make them achieve to higher levels, otherwise known as a "growth mindset."

"The way I do it might not be the way you do it," she said, referring to a math problem. "It might be faster for me and slower for you. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. What works for you is best."

Jane Sims, director of academic technology and online learning at St. Scholastica, worked with teachers on using technology in their classrooms, including a conferencing app that allows kids to be in the classroom even when they're home sick, and allows parents to talk to teachers if they can't physically be at the school for a meeting. Not all kids have computers at home, though, Sims said, "so you have to be careful about that."

As schools move to one-to-one technology, she said, things like Chromebooks or iPads that allow each child to work on a problem at their desk can help keep kids on task, as the teacher can immediately have them show their work via a larger screen at the front of the class. SmartBoards — which a student needs to stand at the front of the class to use — are becoming a thing of the past, Sims said.

St. Scholastica was awarded a $45,000 grant from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education for the workshop, which was provided free to area teachers, who also received a stipend and either a Chromebook or iPad for their classrooms. Teachers from the Duluth school district and the Catholic Diocese of Duluth's Stella Maris Academy took part.

The workshop is among other efforts to improve teaching in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM. Kirk said it's important to engage kids in those fields at young ages, because it only becomes harder in high school and beyond.

"There is a huge crisis in our country in terms of producing solid STEM students ... for the fields and careers we need to run our society," Kirk said.

Teachers such as Juten are preparing kids for jobs that haven't yet been invented, underscoring the importance of teaching kids to communicate, reason, problem-solve and think for themselves, Juten said.

"It's exciting, and kind of terrifying as a teacher," she said. "It's giving them these opportunities and watching them, and then we have to step way back."

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