Scott Cooley doesn’t start a math unit by handing out a formula sheet.
Instead, the University High School math teacher, who recently won a prestigious presidential award, encourages students to see a situation to which they’d apply math. He calls this formative assessment, where one reveals what is in students’ minds, “because that’s when learning starts.”
Cooley graduated from the University of Arizona in 1999 and has been at University High for 13 of his 16 years of teaching. He currently teaches geometry, pre-calculus and calculus.
“I don’t want to teach memorization,” Cooley said. So he tries other ways.
Take one math lesson:
Cooley paints a scenario for his freshman class. There were three farmers growing their farms incrementally each year. One of the farms would lengthen one side by the same amount every year. Another would grow two dimensions of their farm every year. And the third would double in proportion.
Describe the difference in those patterns, he asks students.
They tried to explain how one farmer increased his farm by the same amount, another increased his farm by the same difference, and the last was simply doubling his dimensions. But they didn’t know how to sum up that information.
“I wish we had a faster way of counting the difference,” the students complained. Cooley revealed the trick.
The faster way, he told students, is to count the patterns. By doing that, they were describing the difference between linear, quadratic and exponential equations.
“The words that come out of their mouth are so powerful,” Cooley said. “Students would say, ‘The second farmer’s land is growing by more and more each time, but the amount that it grows by is the same.’ That’s a calculus definition for quadratics coming out of my freshman Algebra I class.”
He wants to “create a safe classroom for students to say, ‘This is what I see, here’s what I always thought.’ ” He believes in creating experiences that help students build on concepts they already know. And he doesn’t keep his secrets to himself.
Cooley is also involved with Riverpoint Advance Math Partnership, an Eastern Washington University project to refine teaching practices that better prepare students for college. Jackie Coomes, a principal investigator for the partnership, noticed Cooley’s style in 2008. She was so impressed by his methods that she nominated him for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
“One thing I noticed was Scott is completely engrossed in making sure the students learned,” Coomes said. “He’s so aware of the students and their engagement, and is never distracted or goes on tangents.”
The award, which comes with a $10,000 grant, is run by the National Science Foundation. Each year the foundation selects one teacher in math and one in science from each of the 50 states and other U.S. districts. Cooley recently went to Washington, D.C., to receive his award, along with a certificate signed by President Barack Obama.
University High is the only school in the country with two teachers who have won the presidential awards: Mike Conklin, head of the math department, won last year.
The state graduation requirement is three years of math. Most University High students end up taking four years, tackling harder subjects like calculus and statistics, Conklin said.
“The students are constantly defending their thoughts,” Conklin said of his and Cooley’s teaching methods. “The objectives are clear, but the students are definitely working along the way to get those objectives.”
Topics of discussion could be seasonal sales trends, volume and box repackaging, and other ways to “see how the numbers of the real world fit nicely into formulas,” he said.
With whiteboards and an appreciation for a formula’s real-world application, students in Cooley’s class discuss what is happening in the situations.
The overall goal is to “make math a safe place to be,” Conklin said.
“Whether it’s the boy who’s never had any math, or the girl who’s so shy she’s too scared to say anything – the hope is I’ll get everybody, not just the people who are quick at math,” Cooley said.
Crystal Duan is a student in the University of Missouri Journalism School’s Washington Reporting Program. She works as a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.
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