Tacoma, Washington teacher Beryl Horton works to show her students that math is everywhere – from cars speeding on school property to the demolition of the Kingdome. She and her students have undertaken one of the most ambitious projects for the National Math Trail.
Teaching mathematics these days means more than teaching concepts and skills—it also means affecting students’ attitudes towards math and towards learning. What attitude do you want your students to have about mathematics?
Basically, that math can be fun and math is useful. We want them to realize that everything involves math and they are doing it everyday. Just putting one sock on each foot in the morning is an example of one-to-one correspondence. All the way to sending a rocket to the moon—it all involves math.
So you always emphasize real-life application?
My goal is that 90 to 95 percent of what we teach is in the context of real world application, and I think we meet that goal most of the time.
Can you give us some examples?
Recently there is quite a bit of controversy locally over the fact that the Kingdome sports arena was being demolished. It was something that was on everyone’s minds, so we put together a week’s worth of lesson on the Kingdome. I gave the students a list of 25 questions. How long did it take to go up? How long is it going to take to come down? Why aren’t all the demolition charges going off at the same time? If you had to travel from one part of Seattle to another while they were detouring traffic for the demolition, how much longer would it take you? They had to do research on these points and they had to explain the mathematical reasoning behind the answers they came up with.
As another example, when we were studying distance and speed, instead of just doing a bunch of equations, I took the students out to the front of the school and told them their job was to find out if people actually slowed down to the speed limit. They had to devise a way to time the cars. The only equipment they had was a calculator and a watch. So each team worked out a method for determining the speed of the cars. We noted license plate numbers and then we wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, thanking the people who slowed down in our school zone.
When I look for projects, I’m always willing to adjust the project to current events. I love it when something happens. Next fall, we’ll be doing a lot of our mathematics instruction using the contexts of the Olympics and the national elections.
Where do you get ideas for lessons like these?
Well, for one thing, I scour the newspaper. There’s a wealth of math in the newspaper, from the front page to the stock market to the ads. I have the students look at the newspaper for examples of mathematics, and they especially like it when they find mistakes, like an advertisement for $59 dollar shoes that are on sale for 20%, and now cost $64 dollars. I could teach the entire mathematics curriculum from pre-kindergarten to Algebra 1 with nothing but a newspaper.
How about the Internet as a source?
Absolutely. I spend an hour each Saturday looking on the internet for math sites. After a while, you get quite a collection. I have 48 folders of sites related to all aspects of math, with anywhere from six to twenty sites in each folder. Some of them are sites which are lesson plans about or for a certain grade level. I have a collection which is everything I could find on Newton’s Laws of Motion for when we do vehicle problems. It’s a great resource –when a third grade teacher comes in and wants something related to triangles, it’s right there.
Sounds like you’re not finding it difficult to create a curriculum based on real-world mathematics.
I could probably teach 500 lessons a year, because the whole world is math.
And how do you measure your success?
I consider a lesson is effective if I can give the students a real-world problem and they can solve it. Something that they weren’t able to solve beforehand.