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Reimagining Middle School Math Class

An initiative to transform math education takes shape at Rutgers and local schools   

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Ah, middle school.

It’s a time when students’ minds fill with thoughts about cool clothes, best friends, and the hottest video games.

But could they also get excited about math?

That question weighs on the minds of educators, policy-makers, and employers concerned over U.S. competitiveness in a globalized world.

“Middle school is a critical time,” says Amy Cohen, professor of mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers. “And there’s a growing concern that students are coming into high school not knowing enough math and not showing interest in the subject matter.”

Those concerns are the motivating force behind a Rutgers initiative aimed at transforming middle school math education.

The New Jersey Partnership for Excellence in Middle School Mathematics (PEMSM) draws on the talent of SAS and Graduate School of Education (GSE) faculty to provide experienced middle school teachers with new knowledge, strategies, and techniques that they can bring back to their classrooms.

MiddleSchoolMathTeacherWithStudentsIn the process, Rutgers is forging critical partnerships with New Jersey school districts – an act of community outreach that can have lasting benefits for the state’s educational system and economic health. 

“The idea is that if we can engage students in learning math, if we can get them excited, if we can get them to feel empowered, then they stand a much better shot when they get to high school,” says Cohen, who serves as principal investigator for a National Science Foundation grant that funds the program.

“This is good for the university and also good for our economic and political future,” she added.

Teachers say the program - which consists of seven graduate courses - has helped them develop an array of lively, engaging teaching techniques to augment traditional approaches that rely more on memorization of procedures.

“When I was a student, I learned to multiply fractions without really understanding what I was doing,” says Ann Bomberger, a teacher in Sayreville who recently completed the program. “Now I spend a lot of time talking with my students about what it means; I draw pictures and use manipulatives so they understand what’s being done and not just memorizing.”

MiddleSchoollMathStudentArmRaised2013For Mike Smith, a 2002 Rutgers College graduate, and a teacher at the Carl Sandburg Middle School in Old Bridge, the PEMSM program was revelatory in its approach to demystify math for students.  

Smith’s eighth-grade math class is like a continuous conversation centered around algebraic problems on a smart board that gets students connected and talking about the material. He asks pointed questions, trying to draw students out so he can understand their thought process, and pinpoint where they are faltering. He’s always ready to tailor his explanations so that students can better grasp the concepts.

“I’m trying to help students get a deeper understanding,” Smith said. “Through the questioning, I want to see how they’re coming up with the answer, and whether they understand the concept or are just following the instructions.”

MiddleSchoollMathStudentatboardAbout 50 teachers have completed the PEMSM program and about another 50 are current students. The teachers can take the courses as part of a master’s in education program or as standalone professional development. A total of 15 districts from across New Jersey are participating.

The overall vision was evident last fall when students at the Long Branch Middle School were given a problem to solve that involved pizza. Specifically, they had to figure out how many different combinations customers could order given the available toppings.

As they enthusiastically worked out the problem, teachers in the Rutgers PEMSM program worked their way around the room, talking to students, monitoring their progress, but taking care not to give away the answer.

“Because when you lead them, it’s not their solution,” Judith Landis, a GSE instructor and veteran educator who led the exercise, told the teachers afterward.  

Landis said the beauty of such “thoughtful mathematics” is watching students think for themselves and work their way toward a solution.

“And that’s where math should always be,” she said.