July 19, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

Jan Koop has landed her fourth consecutive grant to work with Grand Rapids-area math teachers.

Recently, Jan Koop came to the end of a two-year project of helping teachers from two area schools to improve their skills at teaching math—funded through a $236,000 Improving Teacher Quality Grant from the State of Michigan. At the project’s beginning and end, Koop surveyed the teachers to measure not only how well they understood math, but their attitudes toward teaching it.

“Everything went up dramatically,”  said Koop, a Calvin mathematics professor. “I was really encouraged that their attitudes had changed because it’s really hard to change attitudes.”

While finishing up the 2011 project, Koop had already embarked on a new Improving Teacher Quality Grant, her fourth since 2005. Altogether, she has been awarded about $1 million to help area teachers improve their mathematics instruction .

The new grant partnered Koop with teachers from William C. Abney Academy and West Side Christian School. Her goal for the new grant was the same as for the three that had preceded it: to improve area teachers’ math skills, while also helping them to understand math concepts deeply. “If you can do it and you can understand it, you always like it better—rather than if you’re shaky about it,” she said.

Filling the gap

Koop is persistent about teaching math to Grand Rapids-area teachers because, over the past decade, funding for professional development has dried up.  Each of the schools she has worked with is a high-needs school. “There is almost no money to do professional development,” Koop said, adding that math teaching has suffered as a result. “A lot of teachers can teach it in a rote way … but they don’t have a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.”

Her work with the Abney and West Side teachers follows the pattern she’s established with her other grants. All 42 teachers attended a five-day summer institute at Calvin, where they used pattern blocks, geoboards and other hands-on teaching tools to explore mathematical concepts.

“We really emphasize small-group work,” said Koop: “They’re usually trying to solve some problem and working on it together.” The workshops are designed to be fun, she added.

They are also challenging, said education professor Jane Genzink, who helps Koop to facilitate the sessions. Genzink enjoys watching the give and take of the teachers: “The week-long summer institute gives the teachers space and time to … have discussions about how they might be able to bring this approach to mathematics back to their own classrooms,” she said. “Teachers from different grade levels have the opportunity to learn together and, often, from each other. It's a great snapshot of a collaborative learning community.”

A continuing relationship

When the Abney and West Side teachers return to their classrooms for the 2012-2013 academic year, they can look forward to five visits from Koop to assess how they’re incorporating what they’ve learned. Koop’s students will also be helping out at the two schools, gaining experience while learning their trade.

“Through the connections that Jan has formed, our mathematics students who want to be teachers can get into the schools and teach. It’s great for our department,” said mathematics chair Mike Stob. He added that Koop’s ongoing math project comes at a good time for public school teachers, since Michigan will adopt Common Core State Academic Standards for Mathematics in 2015. “Teachers are going to need a lot of training to adapt to the new standards,” he said.

Koop acknowledges the multiple benefits of the project, and she enjoys witnessing its results. “I think we are making an impact,” she said. “I’ve seen teachers who have completely turned around the way they teach mathematics—and that’s a win.”


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