Helping Students Learn to Love Math Through Science

By Robyn LaTorre

“Math sucks.”

“Why are we learning physics? We are only freshmen!”

“This is too hard. My sister never even had physics and she graduated and is at college.”

Students’ words of despair fill my September, as my freshmen get back into the groove of school and begin learning the routine of high school. I explain, “Gone are the days of rote memorization. We have to expand your minds to think past what you can recall and into formulating your own thoughts and experiences.” This notion is immediately bucked with “I wanna go back to eighth grade; high school is too hard!” This may just prove to be my hardest year yet.

Being a teacher in 2017 is much different than being a teacher just a decade ago. Teachers have a number of daily responsibilities to improve lessons. They must reach every learner, assess for understanding every day, group according to ability, reteach, enrich, remediate and repeat. Plus the regular responsibilities required of teaching such as lesson plans, formative assessments, grading, item analysis of high stakes testing, Lexile reports and how to integrate strategies for reading, calling home and dealing with interpersonal issues amongst teens. And let’s not forget trying to further your learning through advanced degrees, to have a social life or to care for a family. A teacher’s responsibilities seem never-ending, and it’s exhausting.

Reaching today’s teen learners requires as much innovation and variation as their daily lives, which are filled with technology, blurbs of information, mini videos used to entice, excite and sell products. How are we as teachers supposed to compete with that? So, of course, when new curriculums, acronyms and programs flood the school’s professional development scene each new school year, they are very rarely greeted with optimism from teachers.

A Powerful New Approach to Teaching High School Science

This is my sixth year at Pleasantville High School (PHS), where we have a semester block schedule system. In this time I have taught nine math subjects, so I know where the math starts and where it goes next, giving my students an opportunity to branch from the past or leap forward to the future.

This year we started a new initiative from the nonprofit New Jersey Center for Teaching & Learning (CTL), where the science sequence for high school students is completely flipped. Freshmen take Algebra-Based Physics where we look at physics in one dimension, with a goal to reinforce students’ algebra skills. Students take Chemistry as sophomores and Biology as juniors because biology isn’t truly understood without a grasp on how the world works (Physics) and how those pieces interact (Chemistry). I am an eternal optimist, so I jumped right into the opportunity to change how our students learn.

Beginning in January 2016, I joined a cohort of 10 teachers from different schools in Atlantic County to begin CTL’s certification process to become physics certified. This is necessary, as most people with physics degrees do not go into teaching, and therefore physics teachers are in short supply. Teaching physics after learning algebra-based physics over six months, was an intimidating task. But because I am a math teacher and have a math degree, the concepts were easy and I had experience with where students would struggle mathematically. I was excited for the challenge.

PHS has a high population of historically underserved students — ninety-eight percent of the student population is African-American or Latino — and requires research-based instructional practices in order to close the achievement gap. CTL’s program offers this as well as free, editable curriculum and lessons for Algebra-Based Physics, tests, quizzes and labs that are a mix of inquiry-based and guided learning, depending on the level of your students’ abilities. This allowed me, as someone who had just learned the content, to focus on lesson concepts and how to relate it to algebra classes.

Customizing the Learning Experience for My Own Classroom

Our school also opted to purchase responders (hand-held devices students can use to answer presentation questions and get real-time feedback) which were recommended for formative assessments. However, I quickly realized that my students didn’t really care to answer this way, so I found some different options as well as supplemental online learning:

  • I took the presentations and loaded the multiple-choice questions into Kahoot! and the open-ended questions in, and had my students respond formatively that way. Through Peardeck, students can read and practice the concepts in the presentation by answering questions or drawing diagrams.
  • I use QuizletLive, which I find to be the best program for engaging students through interactive games. It allows them to collaborate as a group to master vocabulary, match formulas and review definitions. The students love it and it allows their conversations and competitive nature to thrive!
  • helps students visualize concepts through sports and experiments.
  • DudePerfect and PhysicsGirl on get students excited about learning different topics.

Now that PHS has adopted a Google platform, every student in our freshman has their own device utilizing Google ChromeBooks, so learning from these resources has become easier and faster to access.

“This is so easy.”

“Now I get it.”

“Here, I’ll show you!”

“Oh, so y=mx+b is really just like V=Vi +at, except the physics equation is real life?”

These are the sentences stated in my classroom now. The confidence and “I’ll do it myself” attitude has become infectious throughout. In looking toward the future of CTL curriculum in my classroom, I am excited to move to a paperless platform. Students will be encouraged to learn at the own pace utilizing, and ask questions as needed, becoming leaders of their own learning. I will facilitate their conversations, discussions, problem-solving strategies and critical thinking skills, but ultimately supply the tools necessary for autonomous learning. CTL also affords me an opportunity, along with physics certification, to achieve my Masters in Curriculum & Instruction with a concentration in STEM. This not only advances my education, but also propels me toward my ultimate goal of being a STEM coach for a district. I am passionate about education and the next generation of learning. Being a guiding force and a pioneer in education is my life’s goal.

If you have any questions, comments, concerns or collaborative ideas to share, please feel free to share them in the comments section below.

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Robyn LaTorre is a teacher at Pleasantville High School.

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