Math magic: STEM Center teaches CPS teachers how to delight, inspire students

STEM center math workshop
The STEM Center also hosts workshops for area teachers such as this one in 2016. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
This story was original published in DePaul Magazine​.

“Mrs. Boyd, there is something different about you as you teach math class now. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, keep doing it because it’s getting funner, even though you’re challenging us and making us work more hardest.”

That praise from a second-grader on Chicago’s South Side was music not only to his teacher’s ears, but also to those of Lynn Narasimhan, director of the STEM Center in DePaul’s College of Science and Health. The teacher, Carmella Lewis-Boyd, is taking Narasimhan’s new K–5 math teachers curriculum, and the “funner” lessons that she learned were a hit with her students.

“I anticipated DePaul's Tuesday class so I could listen, discuss, watch, analyze and reflect more on math,” Boyd wrote in one of her assignments. “Because of this class, my students learned something new every Wednesday. I never missed a Wednesday at work because I wanted to model or discuss or practice whatever we learned the night before.”

Closing the gap

Boyd is part of the first cohort to enroll in the Elementary Math Specialist Project. The project is modeled on the Chicago Algebra Initiative, a partnership between the Chicago Public Schools, DePaul, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. CPS requested help from the universities in 2004 when it discovered that only 7 percent of CPS eighth-graders had the opportunity to take high school algebra, compared with 35 percent of students nationally. Faculty from the three universities created a program to provide middle school teachers with the knowledge and credentials they needed to teach eighth-graders algebra for high school credit.

The success of that program caught the attention of the CME Group Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, which provided grants to create a similar program for elementary school math teachers and cover their tuition. Forty-five teachers from Chicago’s under-resourced South and West sides are partway through the seven-course program, and the program hopes to offer additional cohorts.

“Our big goal was to get teachers thinking differently about what a good math class looks like and what their students are capable of doing,” Narasimhan says. The CPS teachers replaced rote memorization with games and hands-on tasks that illustrate the relationships between numbers. They started challenging their students with complex problems that might take days to solve. Then they talked with each other about how the new tactics had worked.

Narasimhan says math educators typically are taught how to instruct students on everything from beginning fractions to calculus, regardless of the grades they plan to serve. EMSP takes a different approach.

“We believe teachers should experience what they are going to teach in some depth. They should really understand the connections and how to help their students make those connections,” she says.

Learning through making mistakes

That process was eye-opening for teacher Emily Nuttall, who learned addition and subtraction as a child by following the steps in a song. 

“I was getting 100s on my papers, but I really didn’t understand what I was doing,” she says. “These classes have forced me to think about the way I’ve learned in the past.”

Instead of focusing on correct answers, she now emphasizes the relationships between numbers that lead to those answers. Her students take time to wrestle with problems and have more authority over their own learning.

“One of my favorite strategies is having students discuss the ‘best mistake of the day,’” she says. “My students are excited, talking about all the ideas that come from that one mistake. Instead of feeling like, ‘I made a mistake, I’m not smart,’ they’re seeing mistakes as another opportunity to learn.”

Her students hone their critical-thinking skills by tackling problems above their grade level, which paid off handsomely last year. Students from a nearby high school came to the elementary school one day to practice teaching math; Nuttall’s third-graders accidentally ended up in a class for fifth- and sixth-graders.

“My third-graders had a ball. They were asking questions, they were figuring things out and they were making logical connections," Nuttall says. "The high school students didn’t realize what was happening. They thought my students were just small fifth-graders. It blew my mind."

Inspiring students from under-resourced communities to perform well above expectations is the project’s long-term goal.

“This is the first time we’ve worked so much with educators this early in the pipeline,” Narasimhan says. “While not every elementary school teacher will become a specialist in math, we’re hoping to establish a core who can share their strategies with their colleagues.”

To strengthen the appeal of the program, the EMSP team is working with the state to establish an elementary math specialist endorsement for teachers who complete the curriculum; Narasimhan hopes it will be finalized during the current academic year. Additionally, participants who complete the curriculum need only five more graduate courses to earn a master’s degree in math education from either DePaul or UIC.

For more information about the EMSP program, email cnarasim@depaul.edu.

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