The idea came to Linda Eberhart in 2002, when she was Maryland's Teacher of the Year. Traveling around the state, she got to hear from lots of other teachers about what was working in their classrooms and what wasn't.
The next year, Eberhart rounded up some fellow fifth-grade teachers in Baltimore schools and gathered them in her classroom at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School in Bolton Hill. The subject: math. How children learn it, where they struggle, what motivates them.
There were only about 15 teachers at first, but word quickly spread. Soon colleagues teaching fourth grade wanted to come, too. Then third grade. Now, convening one Thursday night a month, the group has swelled to about 150. They come, on their own time, to share suggestions and support each other.
Suggestions such as: Superman has to run before he jumps. That's how Steve Lecholop got his fourth-grade pupils at North Bend Elementary School to remember to run across the X-axis before jumping up the Y-axis on coordinate grids.
Lecholop is in his second year of teaching. Eberhart is in her 37th. This past Thursday, she reported back to him that his tip worked great with her class.
"I get so many wonderful ideas from everyone," said Eberhart, who makes and distributes a CD each month with all the suggestions shared in the previous session, along with her own ideas.
At Mount Royal, Eberhart teaches math to the same group of children for two years in a row, in fourth and fifth grades. She plans to retire at the end of next school year, when her current fourth-graders finish fifth grade. Until then, she is grooming younger teachers to keep the Thursday night sessions going. She is also working to put all her teaching strategies into the computer to leave for them.
In the late 1990s, Eberhart's pupils posted the highest math test scores in the state. The state now uses a different standardized test, which 85 percent of Mount Royal fifth-graders passed last year. That compares with a pass rate of 48 percent citywide and 69 percent across Maryland.
While she doesn't have hard numbers to back her up, Eberhart says the teachers who come regularly to the monthly gatherings have seen their classes' math test scores go up significantly.
The whole effort, which has become known as "Math Works," costs $20,000 a year for materials and a stipend for another teacher, Tara Barnes, who oversees the logistics. It is funded through an Abell Foundation grant.
For such a small amount of money, Eberhart says, the program has profound implications. School systems spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on professional development, which often involves experts telling teachers what to do. A far more effective strategy, she argues, is for teachers to collaborate as equals.
What is more, a key factor behind many teachers' decisions to leave the profession after a few years is lack of support. Several teachers interviewed said the Math Works meetings - and the connections they make there - go a long way toward filling that void.
"Without it, I don't know what I'd be teaching," said Elisabeth Lim, a first-year teacher at Highlandtown Elementary School No. 215. Barnes went to Lim's school to help her set up a program she learned about in Math Works, and Lim went to Mount Royal during the school day to observe Eberhart in action.
On Thursday, a sixth-grade teacher from Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle showed up to meet with the fifth-grade teachers, saying he wanted to look into remedial work for his pupils. Eberhart introduced him to Sarah Kenders, who was moderating the fifth-grade discussion but now teaches sixth grade at Waverly Elementary/Middle.
"I'll get a blank CD for you," Kenders said. "I'll give you all my stuff."
In the Mount Royal library, fifth-grade teachers were comparing the food they use to help their pupils understand fractions: Hershey's chocolate bars, Skittles and pizza. "If you don't want to use candy, you can use [poker] chips," one teacher offered.
Upstairs in the third-grade session, Yolanda Jenkins was talking about a game she plays with popcorn to ensure that her pupils at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary master their multiplication tables. "It's going to burn if you don't answer quick," she said she tells them.
LaShella Stanfield of Harlem Park Elementary told the group about "King Zero," who "makes everyone be like him." In other words, when you multiply by zero, the answer is always zero.
As they do every month, they were sharing "hot spots" - concepts that kids routinely have trouble understanding. And they were dissecting their pupils' answers to "brief constructive response" questions - word problems - in the format that will appear on the state's standardized tests.
After the grade-level breakout sessions, the last before next month's Maryland School Assessments, Eberhart gathered all the teachers in the auditorium to give them tips on getting ready for the tests.
She showed them how she analyzes data to determine what to work on in the final weeks.
She suggested feeding pupils protein in the morning on test days, followed by carbohydrate-rich snacks to sustain their energy, plus plenty of water. Opening the windows also helps, she has found.
She reminded everyone that a child needs to get only about 40 percent of the problems correct to pass the math exam. "This is something that is really doable," she said.
The trick, she added, is to instill kids with confidence before the test. A teacher in the audience stood up and showed everyone some little buttons she bought at Lexington Market. They light up, and she gives them to children as rewards during review sessions.
Eberhart was delighted. She said she was going out to buy some light-up buttons herself.