This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Mathematics teacher Brad Latimer has a raft of strategies to help his students learn challenging algebra and calculus.
On a recent day, he started with a “warmup” question, challenging his senior calculus students to create a formula for calculating the area of a trapezoid. “It’s perfectly possible,” Latimer assured them.
Then came the topic of the day, estimating the area under a curve. It’s a concept hard to visualize, so Latimer sat down at his laptop, and soon the whiteboard that dominates the front wall lit up with a dramatic upward curve on a graph. For the next 10 minutes, teacher and students played with the curve, cutting it vertically into progressively smaller slices. The smaller the slice, the more accurate the calculation, they all agreed.
A teacher for seven years, the last four at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA ) in Center City, Latimer teaches using a mix of instruction, small-group work, and individual problem-solving. This is standard stuff, typical of most good math classrooms.
What may be less common is the way Latimer and other SLA teachers approach tests and quizzes. SLA, affiliated with the Franklin Institute, is built around project-based learning.
“We use projects to both show us where students are in terms of certain skills and to show us that they not only understand the content but can apply it to a larger problem,” Latimer said.
The second-quarter project in calculus focused on derivatives and required creating a website that included citations. Some projects involved financial analysis, others population trends.
“Every project was so different. You could see students going in areas that interested them,” said Latimer. At first, he said, students hated the idea. “It’s a lot easier when step 1 is this, step 2 is this, step 3 is this, and here’s the answer. It’s much harder to tell them, ‘You know the concept, figure it out for yourself.’ By the end they were really proud of what they had done.”
Even Latimer’s quizzes are new wave, so to speak. SLA teachers break down their courses into learning blocks called standards, and every standard is assessed through the year.
“The thing that’s different – students essentially have an unlimited number of opportunities to raise their grade. They can retake the test, but not the whole test, just the standard they missed,” Latimer said.
“The one thing I want students to realize is that mathematics in its most boiled-down form is problem-solving,” Latimer said. “They will need to know how to wrestle with a problem, how to collaborate with their peers, how to engage in the inquiry process. Some of them will need the specific content, but math is problem-solving.”