Missing the Mark

Experienced math teacher Lucy Hamilton wants to update her lessons by including technology. She's hoping her revamped lessons will motivate and engage students.

Lucy Hamilton teaches math at Stevenson High School.

Veteran teacher Lucy Hamilton reflects on her morning geometry lesson.

Lucy Hamilton had always wanted to be a teacher, and she’d always been good at math. Voila! Interest + Aptitude = Career. She’d been working here at Stevenson High for 17 years, and her reward was five sections of advanced math—three of Geometry and two of Algebra II. Her students were college-bound—and it was her responsibility to see that they were prepared for what was coming next.

It was only 10 AM Monday and already it had been quite a day. Thank goodness she had a planning period to regroup! Sometimes teaching just seemed like a never-ending struggle… actually, the teaching was the easy part; she could tell the kids how to compute the area of a geometric solid in her sleep. She’d been doing it for twenty years. Lucy stopped sorting papers and looked up at the blackboard. That could be the problem.

Lucy couldn’t even count the number of digital gadgets she had confiscated this year. And it’s all the kids talked about: TiVo this, iPod that. Her own niece and nephew were so hypnotized by their X-Box 1, 2, 3, 100 (or whatever it was up to now) over the holidays, they barely spoke for three days! She couldn’t deny it: today’s student was bombarded with visual images, buttons to push, flights of fancy to engage upon. And now it seemed to be expected that a math lesson offer the same entertainment value. How was she supposed to do that?

Lucy reviewed the morning’s geometry lesson. It was one that she’d developed a couple of years ago, and she thought it served very well in illustrating how to compute the lateral surface area of a given solid shape. Perhaps it had worked for some of her students, but as for the others? Lucy pictured Jessica’s bored face. Could the girl look any less engaged?

Lucy couldn’t help recalling problems with her lesson. Unfortunately, her self-analysis was going to have to wait. Right now she was due to meet with the school’s Technology Specialist, Sue Barry.

“Hi, Sue,” Lucy called out as an elegantly dressed woman tapped lightly on her door. “Come on in.” Sue has such style, Lucy thought, maybe she should give an in-service on fashion for teachers! Her own wardrobe was much more…utilitarian. “What’s up?”

“Just making the rounds, Lucy,” Sue said as she pulled up a chair to the teacher’s desk. “I know you had to miss the last department meeting. Did Carla fill you in?”

“She did. At least, she gave me a copy of the handout.” She reached for the folder where she stored departmental memos. “We’re required to develop some tech lessons, correct?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Sue nodded.

See the department meeting handout below:

It is Sue’s responsibility to help teachers become more comfortable integrating technology.

Sue looked closely at Lucy. “So, how are things?”

“Oh, same as ever,” Lucy sighed, resignation creeping into her tone. “I think I’m in a bit of a rut.”

“Well, I can help with that!” Sue smiled brightly at Lucy. “Technology is the answer. It’s changing everything.”

“You’ve read my mind!” said Lucy. “I was just now thinking about how different things are from when I started teaching. Each year, I feel more and more like a dinosaur.”

“I know what you mean,” Sue said, opening up her laptop. “I chaperoned at Homecoming and couldn’t get over what they call dancing these days!”

“Oh, I know,” Lucy shuddered. “How am I supposed to make math even vaguely as compelling as that?”

Sue laughed. “Well, that’s why I’m here. I have a couple of software programs to show you that I got from the state technology conference last week. I think they’ll really be useful—and fun—for your students.”

Lucy leaned across her desk, where Sue had angled the laptop so she could read the screen, and studied the program descriptions thoughtfully. Yes, she could see how this would appeal to her students. In fact, she thought with mounting interest, it kind of appealed to her.

Read about Geometer’s Sketchpad.

Read about Cabri Geometry II.

“So those are the basic tools of each program,” Sue led in after they had explored the software. “Do you have any questions?”

Lucy bit her lip. “When is this lesson due? I think I need some time to take all of this in.”

“Oh, of course. The lesson—a draft of which is due Wednesday, to answer your question—is just a way to get teachers started with tech integration. I can show you some other ways to use technology in your daily lessons, if you’d like, and that’d give you more time to get familiar with this software.”

Lucy nodded her head reluctantly, and Sue continued. “I’ve been working with Ted’s third period class using PowerPoint to explore surface area. Here.” She clicked on a few keys on her laptop. “Take a look at this.”

See the example of a math-technology integration project Sue provided.

Lucy smiled as Sue clicked through the slide show. “Oh, I can see how students might really like this. And I’ve been meaning to include more opportunities for them to write.” But, she wanted to add, I’m no expert on PowerPoint. What’ll I do when they ask me how to use it?

Sue must have guessed what she was thinking again. “I’m offering a PowerPoint review session tomorrow after school, if you’re interested.”

“Thanks, I guess,” Lucy said and then looked at Sue. “I don’t mean to be so negative, it’s just this way of thinking is so different.”

Sue smiled encouragingly. “We’ll get there. Don’t worry.”

But Lucy was worried. As a forty-something woman she hadn’t grown up with computers herself. And while the technology certification test required by the school might look rigorous, in reality, all she’d had to do was attend a few workshops to get the necessary signatures. She’d tried a few times to use some of her new knowledge, but it turned out that on her own she couldn’t navigate the programs and so she’d given up.

See the Technology Certification Requirements for Stevenson High below:

Learning and teaching a software program was a whole new ball game, then. But this was her students’ reality—they’d probably figure out how to use the program much faster than she—and she knew that she had to offer them opportunities to use their skills in class. Besides, there was only so far she could take her old lessons, and many of her students were ready for so much more.

After Sue left, Lucy went back to thinking about that morning’s geometry lesson. She’d tried to give the kids a real-life problem to solve so they would be more engaged. The blue group generally seemed to understand, but the red group just seemed…out-to-lunch. And when she made the comparison to collecting soup labels, they all looked at her as if her face was inside-out.

Maybe with access to these new computer programs, the students who had really mastered her lesson could branch off into further exploration of the subject rather than waiting for everyone else to get it. But what about those who were struggling with the analysis portion, with organizing, presenting and solving a problem in logical sequence? What about Jessica and Andy? How could she reach them?

Lucy’s students get together after school to prepare for the next day’s test.

Andy would rather think about basketball than math.

“Hey, did you catch the game last night?” Andy took a set shot from where he lay on the sofa. The balled up paper landed in the trash can. “I got game,” he grinned. “Did you guys see Carter? He scored 22 points! 22 points!”

“He’s the man!” Brian replied from his fully reclined position on the Lazy Boy.

“Give me the remote, B,” Andy said. “I TiVoed the last half. You gotta see this.”

Brian threw the remote with one hand and grabbed a handful of chips with the other. “Your basement smells like cat litter,” he said, spraying chips crumbs across his shirt front.

“C’mon, guys,” Jessica spoke up from where she sat on the floor, surrounded by papers, her back against the sofa. “We’ve got a test tomorrow, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. Math.” Andy flashed his patented grin. “Geometry, right?”

“Yeah, right,” said Brian, shaking his head. “You ready for this, or what?”

“Awwww, it’s not that hard,” said Andy. “I can do most of it in my head. It’s so stupid the way she makes us write all of it down.” He took another shot. “Boo-yah!”

Jessica laughed. She couldn’t help it. Andy was cute, really cute, but she needed to study if she were going to get her usual B. “Geometry guys, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry, Jessica,” Andy smiled at her. “I’ll be good now.”

Jessica remains frustrated by math.

Jessica sighed, rolling her eyes dramatically. “So, number ten,” she continued. “Given a circumference of 3 pi, compute the surface area. God, why are we even doing this? I hate math.”

“Aw, it’s not so bad,” said Andy, leaning over her paper. “Look, they’ve given you the circumference. The rest is easy. All you have to do is—“

Easy, huh? grumbled Jessica to herself. She would do just about anything to get out of Mrs. Hamilton’s class—restroom passes, library passes, trips to guidance. There were no creative projects at all, just memorization and formulas, formulas, formulas. Who cared?

After grading her students’ exams, Lucy challenges herself to develop more creative lessons.

Andy presents his group’s work.

During her Wednesday morning planning period, Lucy recorded the grades from yesterday’s geometry exam into her grade book. She surveyed the page thoughtfully; her eyes finally rested on Andy’s name. Popular, handsome, friendly, and smart, Andy seemed to have everything, and yet, something was missing. He showed up for class every day, but he didn’t really show up. Perhaps, Lucy thought, the lessons weren’t really capturing Andy’s interest, either.

Even though this was advanced math, there was a surprisingly diverse range of ability and motivation in the classroom. Once in a while—about as often as the intermittent setting on her windshield wipers, she thought wryly—she’d get a student who just was not getting with the program.

Jessica is bored by math.

Jessica was such a student. Nice girl, good grades, by all accounts a conscientious, motivated student…except in math. Lucy would say that she was baffled, but the truth was that she’d seen this all too often before. For some reason Jessica (and many girls like her) decided that math just wasn’t worth the effort. If only Lucy could get through to her that math was about so much more than just math; it was about thought processes, organization, methodical thinking… tackling something hard and winning! How could she make Jessica understand that she was handicapping both herself and her future by shutting down like this?

Read an article about girls’ participation in math and science.

Lucy brushed her hand over the blue cover of her grade book. Normally after such poor test performance, she would spend a few days reteaching basic concepts, but Monday’s meeting with Sue had triggered some new thinking in Lucy. For the past three days she’d been wondering how best to infuse some enthusiasm into her classes, and technology integration seemed like one way to do it—and she could still review the necessary information for those who had missed it on the test. She still felt out of her comfort zone using technology in her lessons, but Sue’s PowerPoint review session had been very helpful. Only one other teacher had shown up, so Lucy had gotten plenty of one-on-one support as she moved through the basics of that program and even had time to look at a few other websites with Sue’s help.

View the NCTM: Illuminations website Sue showed Lucy.

Explore the Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction Curriculum Resource Center that Sue recommended.

Looking at the sites with all those beautiful plans certainly had been interesting…or intimidating. Lucy couldn’t quite decide which. Obviously, there was a lot out there, but the plans just hadn’t felt right, somehow. She would have to start from scratch, then. And she liked the idea of using PowerPoint as her technology component.

Lucy worked at her desk for the remainder of her planning period and finished her lesson plan with time to spare. She managed to attach it—a first for her—to her email message to both Sue and her department chair and clicked send with a real sense of accomplishment.

See Lucy’s technology-enhanced math lesson below: