N.Y.C. geometry teacher has new angle


NEW YORK -- To say that Beverly Davidman is an unconventional math teacher would be an understatement. She struts in front of the chalkboard like a rap performer, dispensing both attitude and wisdom.

Call her Queen Math Teacher.

"You can pass if you listen; skipping makes you miss it," she says in a syncopated beat to her students at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan. "So don't try to dis it. Just heed the word as I serve geometry on the board."

"Let's hear it for the theorem metho-o-od," the teacher calls out, her arms swaying back and forth. "Hey ho! Hey ho!." The classroom of baggy jeans, sneakers and thickly hooded sweaters erupts in appreciative laughter. Some students turn to glance at each other with raised eyebrows.

At 43, Mrs. Davidman's says her musical taste is more inclined to soulful ballads than rap. But the teacher will try just about anything to assure that her 10th-grade class is grounded in math principles.

Such lengths include introducing her class to a "special guest," Queen Math Teacher, every now and then.

Mrs. Davidman is one of a growing number of teachers who are reshaping math instruction by using the language and everyday experiences of their students to bring the subject to life. Across the country, educators like Mrs. Davidman are weaning themselves from the traditional method of teacher-dominated drills. Instead, educators are stressing critical thinking and communication to hold students' attention and to prepare them for high-technology jobs that require more than simple computation skills.

Classrooms have been rearranged so that instead of sitting in straight rows, students face one another to talk over math problems. Teachers are linking math to other subjects, such as literature, and encouraging students to write in journals. Students work with blocks and cubes and other objects, and they go on field trips to help understand math concepts.

"Certain teachers are having success with it, but it still hasn't gotten to the mainstream of math classrooms," said Dr. Monica Mitchell, special projects coordinator for the New York City Fund for Public Education, which is working jointly with the city's Board of Education on a new project to bring "Real World Math" into 14 school districts this year. "It's a radical change, and any radical change takes time."

The guiding force behind much of the change is a two-volume document of voluntary standards published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics several years ago.

In the new system, they might be asked to stock an aquarium so the fish are not crowded and the project does not cost too much, and then write a letter to a teacher explaining their choices, said Lauren Resnick, a leader in the movement for change who is director of the Learning and Research Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

In the view of Mrs. Davidman, who has embraced the new standards, "The curriculum is the curriculum, but it's the way you deliver the curriculum that counts."

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