July 12, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

Calvin math professor Jan Koop is using a $200,000 Michigan Department of Education grant to help area teachers understand and teach mathematics.

The students in math professor Jan Koop’s summer workshops this year used pattern blocks, geoboards and other hands-on teaching tools to understand mathematical concepts. In their quest for better math understanding, the students also made a quilt of geometric shapes cut from construction paper—a visual representation of fractions and symmetry—which now hangs on Koop’s office door.

Koop’s students were 43 elementary school teachers and two principals from Gladiola and West Elementary schools in Wyoming and West Side Christian School in Grand Rapids. They are participants in a $220,000 “Improving Teacher Quality Grant” from the Michigan Department of Education.

Koop is working with these local educators to improve their knowledge and teaching of math. For many of these teachers, Koop emphasized, math is not a specialty.

Teaching math concepts

“They teach science and math and, sometimes, PE too …,” she said. “They don’t tend to have strong backgrounds in math. They probably didn’t deeply understand the mathematics that they learned as they grew up. Like many of us,” Koop summarized, “they are people who very conscientiously learned their multiplication tables but didn’t know why the answers made sense.”

To encourage deep understanding Koop welcomes the teachers to two weeklong workshops held in consecutive summers and a total of five days of instruction during the school year. In addition, the teachers receive in-school coaching in their classrooms.

“We encourage teachers to teach in a way that encourages their students to investigate math concepts,” said Koop. Teachers in the summer workshops devise strategies for learning mathematics concepts, and they create lesson plans to employ those strategies. “We emphasize understanding of the mathematical content, connections to other areas of mathematics, good pedagogy and communication in the classroom,” she said.

The teaching team

Koop has enlisted a cadre of consultants to assist with the workshops: from Hope College, mathematics professor Mary DeYoung and from Calvin, education professors Deb Buursma and Jane Genzink. Educators from the Kent Intermediate School District will lend their expertise in English language learning. “There’s a special challenge to teaching mathematics to people who don’t have English as their first language,” said Koop.

Sessions discussing the Common Core mathematics requirements are also important to the teachers who are trying to adjust their teaching to match this brand-new set of grade-level requirements in the state of Michigan. 

Gladiola principal Bruce Cook enjoyed this summer’s workshop: “I know the first week was to expand our minds or blow our minds with math … ,” Cook said. “It’s great to get a jump on the core curriculum with Jan. She’s very knowledgeable.”

This is Koop’s third Improving Teacher Quality Grant since 2005. The first partnered Calvin with Alexander and Shawnee Elementary schools and with Oakdale Christian School. The second partnered the college with Godfrey-Lee and Holy Name of Jesus schools. Koop worked with 45 teachers from those schools in a second week-long workshop this summer.

Community of learners

When Koop partners with a school, she trains all of the teachers in a given school building. It’s an approach she hopes will foster a “community of learners” at each school. Genzink, who serves as Calvin’s student teacher supervisor, believes the approach is already paying off:

“It's very exciting to come into the building and see two teachers talking in the hallway about their math lesson!  … As we begin to work with the new grant, I'm hopeful that this will happen in these schools as well … When students see their teachers and principal talking about mathematics on a regular basis, they too will become excited and more interested,” Genzink said.

Koop is tracking the results of the workshops, testing teachers (in the summer following their instruction) in both content knowledge and attitudes toward math.

“In this age of increased testing, mathematics is one of two subjects that are tested each year”, said Koop, “so improving mathematics instruction is very important. Developing a flexible and deep understanding of mathematics helps students in everyday tasks and improves their problem solving abilities.” 

Jan Koop with a geoboard

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