21st Century Math in Idaho

By Dan Thomander | 6/08/2017

Dan Thomander @danthomander is a math teacher at Cassia High School, a public alternative high school in rural Burley, ID. In a previous life, Dan worked as a corporate trainer in the banking industry. Now Dan is taking what he learned in corporate training and applying it to try and solve secondary math education. A participant of 2016 CSPdWeek, he learned how incorporating CS into the math classroom can inspire students and help make abstract math concepts in algebra and geometry more practical for his students. His blog documents how he is transforming his math classroom to develop 21st century skills among his students.

Like many math teachers I have struggled in a number of ways. Engaging my students in mathematics has always been my top priority. Almost all of my students arrive several years behind in math, self-identifying as “not a math person”. As a new teacher I relied heavily on my personality to make lessons interesting, to some success. Over time I learned that kids remembered more about me than about the math I taught. I’ve used grading techniques that have helped somewhat with motivation, but found that students generally focus on the grade and not the material. I’ve studied different pedagogies and incorporated many different classroom activities, but all have come up short of 100% engagement.

What I really needed was something in the content itself that would inspire my students. I have looked all over for ways to get students interested in the content. I want them to want to learn, understand, and practice math, because the math itself was interesting and inspiring to them. A few years back when we were first transitioning to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Idaho our district superintendent told us that we would not be able to afford new textbooks and we would have to source our own CCSS aligned materials. In my search for free materials online I found Bootstrap for Algebra, which I gratefully downloaded.

A year went by and I received a message from Bootstrap asking how I used the materials. I told them that after going through the material I wasn’t comfortable teaching it. Math and computer science (CS) are often erroneously lumped together as one subject. I then was asked if I would attend professional development to further my understanding of Bootstrap. My answer? I couldn’t afford it on my teacher’s salary. When I was then asked if I would attend training as my travel and training expenses would be covered by a generous grant from Infosys Foundation USA, I replied with an enthusiastic yes.

CSPdWeek was held in Boulder Colorado at the Colorado School of Mines. When I arrived I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know too much about computer programming. I learned that there were no other workshop attendees from the state of Idaho. I quickly made a friend from New York who had a lot of experience in programming and working with Code.org professional development. I was relieved to find on the first day of the workshop that other attendees felt similar to me. There were some who knew a lot about CS who were nervous about the math content. There were others like me, who knew math well but were apprehensive about computer programming. Finally, there were yet others who taught subjects that gave them little to no experience in either math or CS. In all, my workshop cohort contained a great diversity of experience that would prove beneficial.

The workshop facilitators were great. I learned a lot about CS and math. I worked hard and took good notes, and quickly saw that Bootstrap was going to excite my students. It was exciting to me as well!

Several weeks later, after CSPdweek, I kicked off the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, and the look in my students’ eyes was typical - not a lot of excitement. I knew the look well as I have taught math for many years. These students were new eighth graders coming to Cassia High School, a public alternative school for grades 8-12.

As usual, I was excited to have a new crop of kids and was looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead. This year was a little different though. I had an extra sparkle of excitement in my eyes. I had a new tool to use and I couldn’t wait to see how the kids would respond.

But this was only one reason I had a twinkle in my eye. Not only was I excited to see my students react to the Bootstrap curriculum, I was also excited because of what I learned about CS. I liked it, and I was confident that I could teach it!

So how did this past school year turn out? Students were excited about learning math through Bootstrap. I could see the difference in class, and I noticed that attendance was spectacular. I didn’t realize how deep the feelings were until one day I saw a bunch of my students upset. When I asked why, the response was that they just found out that class was being cancelled for a school-wide activity. Never before in my career had my students been disappointed to learn they were going to have to miss math class!

Here are some quotes from a survey completed this year:

  • Student 1: "I never knew that I like math this much, I was not a fan of math last year but, this year I've changed because of your math class."
  • Student 2: "(Mr. T) has taught me more math this year then I’ve learned in the past 2 years."
  • Parent 1: "It helps keep his interest longer. It also helps apply what is learned in class."

And the results showed in objective assessment results. My students take the STAR math assessment. Even though we only studied the Bootstrap material for about 10 weeks, my students had phenomenal growth. On average they raised their percentile rank 18.9% in just 10 weeks!

So what’s next? I’m happy to say that I will be attending CSPdWeek 2017 to attend a Bootstrap Reactive workshop. I’ve also enrolled in a CS Principles - Mobile self-study professional development. My principal was so pleased with the results in my class that we’ve officially added the first CS classes ever to our master schedule for 2017-2018. I feel happy to know that I’m doing my part to better prepare our students for a future where CS is not a mystery, but something they understand and can participate in. I’m also excited to keep learning myself!