Atlantic City Press

October 20, 2003

Giving Teachers a better formula for math teaching
By Diane D'Amico

-BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Math always came easily to Betsy McShea. Now she's trying to make it more accessible to all students.

A math professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, McShea is part of a Stockton team that won a state grant to work with teachers in the Atlantic City and Buena Regional districts on more effective ways to teach math.

While students in the state have made gains in literacy, math test scores are lagging. McShea believes the solution is more effective teaching that shows students how math is useful in their lives.

"We want to get all the teachers to work as one, nicely flowing from grade to grade," she said. "There should be no big surprises for students."

That means introducing basic algebra concepts as early as kindergarten. It means a lot of hands-on activities, student-generated learning and applying math to real life problems.

"I teach a lot of math-phobic students (at Stockton)," McShea said. "They don't hate math. They just need more experience with it."

The same might be said of the Buena Regional elementary school teachers McShea worked with during a recent training session. McShea handed them a lengthy word problem to determine how many lockers in a school would remain open after a series of math steps. To explain it, she had them become the lockers and act out the problem.

"You look at the problem and think there must be an easier way to do this," she said. "But what is it? By acting out the problem the students can see the math patterns emerge. The number 12 gets a lot of action because a lot of other numbers divide into it."

While the concepts were higher math, the problem also used simple issues of odd/even numbers and counting. Even kindergarteners can get the hang of one number being less than or greater than another.

McShea loves integrating math into other subjects. She pulled out math riddle books, picture books and numbered tile kits students can use.

She believes teachers do too much direct teaching with worksheets, instead of letting students work problems out themselves. She teaches remedial students at Stockton and believes most of their problems were in teaching, not learning.

"I hear form my college students that they just did a lot of worksheets in high school," she said. "If they didn't get something, the teacher just gave them more worksheets rather than trying to explain it in a different way."

The mother of two, McShea loves applying her education to lessons her children can use. She's thrilled when her kindergartener says he does some of the same things at school. It gives her hope the next generation of math students will enjoy math rather than dread it.
"You have to make math useful," she said.