Oak Bluffs School teacher Eve Heyman is one of 50 teachers selected from more than 500 applicants statewide to use a new method for teaching algebra this school year as part of a Harvard study.
Assistant professor Jon Star of the Harvard Graduate School of Education developed new curriculum and instructional materials to help students learn and understand algebra. With Mr. Star’s method, called “contrasting cases,” students solve problems two different ways, side by side.
“It allows them to compare the similarities and differences, and it is Dr. Star’s theory that this allows children to learn algebra with more mastery,” Ms. Heyman said.
Mr. Star launched the extensive research program this year in more than 50 school districts across Massachusetts, a press release said. The purpose of his study is to examine how algebra is currently taught in public schools and to implement new curriculum and instructional materials that supplement standard algebra instruction.
Mr. Star’s study uses two teams of teachers in a randomized controlled trial. Ms. Heyman and 49 other teachers on the “X team” attended a one-week professional development institute at Harvard in July to learn how to use the curriculum and materials. Once school began, they were expected to implement the new method at least one a week and to fill out a survey online after each use.
Twice a month, Ms. Heyman and the teachers in the study also are required to videotape themselves teaching, once while using Mr. Star’s program, and once while using standard instruction, and upload the videos to the project managers.
In the meantime, Edgartown School algebra and remedial math teacher Linda Brown was selected as one of 50 teachers for the “Y team” as a control group. The Y team was not trained in Mr. Star’s method nor given his instructional materials. However, they also must provide videotapes of themselves teaching once a month.
Over the course of the current school year, Ms. Heyman’s students and others taught by the “X team” will have five assessments to chart their learning gains for comparison to students taught by the “Y team.”
Next summer, Ms. Brown and the Y team will be trained and will implement Mr. Star’s curriculum and materials in the 2011-12 school year. The X team will continue the program with a new group of students, and then the learning growth in both groups will be compared again. The study concludes in 2013.
Mr. Star developed the curriculum and instructional materials in collaboration with researchers from Vanderbilt University and Temple University, with the support of the National Science Foundation. Small-scale studies showed that the materials and curriculum helped students better learn and understand algebra.
Ms. Heyman uses Mr. Star’s curriculum twice a week. She teaches three sections of 8th grade algebra, including Oak Bluffs School’s top 14 math students in an honors algebra class.
The new program has proven popular with her students, because the instructional materials feature two middle-school age cartoon characters named Alex and Morgan that catch their attention.
“Every day Alex and Morgan might have on different clothes or have their hair fixed a different way, so the students are totally into noticing that,” Ms. Heyman said with a laugh. “They talk about Morgan having a bad hair day — it’s very funny.”
More importantly, Ms. Heyman has already seen a difference in her students since she started using the new program on the first day of school.
“Usually I’ll have one kid do a problem Alex’s way and one kid do it Morgan’s way, and they’ll go back and forth,” she said.
“I’ve already noticed kids participating more around the method that they used and being able to explain the steps they did, much better than they have in years past, even when it’s not an ‘Alex and Morgan’ problem.”
Ms. Heyman said she already was comfortable with teaching two problems at once, because there are similar exercises in the Impact Mathematics textbook series used by Oak Bluffs School.
Being comfortable on camera, however, took a little more getting used to, especially for her students.
“I’ve been training the kids on the videotaping, because when it’s a taping day, they’re silent,” Ms. Heyman said with a laugh. “So one week, I just videotaped every lesson, because as I told them, you just need to get comfortable.”
Ms. Heyman, a teacher for 16 years, received an undergraduate degree from Allegheny College and a master’s of education degree from Bridgeport University. She arrived on Martha’s Vineyard 12 years ago and has taught at Oak Bluffs School ever since.
In September 2007 she taught the first 19 eighth-graders selected from Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools Island-wide for a pilot algebra honors program. The program was expanded to all four schools with middle-school aged students in September 2008.
When asked about the selection process for the Harvard study, Ms. Heyman said Mr. Star sent mailings to school superintendents in Massachusetts last spring to solicit applications from teachers who might be interested.
Superintendent of schools James Weiss encouraged all of the Island’s middle school and high school math teachers to apply. Ms. Heyman received an acceptance notice at the beginning of June.
As she observed at the July training session, Ms. Heyman said the X team teachers represented a wide range of teaching environments and student demographics.
“I think Harvard did a very nice job in trying to find teachers from the inner city and ones from very rural areas,” she said. “Then some of the teachers, like me, teach an honors level of algebra, while others are teaching remedial algebra to tenth and eleventh graders.”
Ms. Heyman said she hopes to be invited back to next summer’s training session to help train the Y team. Ms. Brown, in turn, said she is excited about her upcoming experience.