Guest Post: Best Math Class Ever?

Hi folks,

Today's post is by Paul Friedmann.  Paul himself is an excellent math teacher at Boston's Edward Brooke Charter School.  He visited a couple charters in Chicago.  He writes:

Best Math Class in America?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have strong opinions about math instruction (understatement of the year?). I’ve been teaching 7th grade math in two Boston charter schools for over 10 years now and I’ve gotten to see lots of different teachers at my schools and other schools I’ve visited. Some have been great; others have been meh. I’ve learned something from all of them. Usually, though, it’s been an incremental thing. Last week, though, I watched a class that forever changed my perspective on what a math class can be.

A group of seven of us from Brooke flew out to Chicago for the day to see math instruction at two schools in the Noble network.

One was Chicago Bulls College Prep near the United Center. We saw their principal, Tyson Kane, teach AP Calculus AB.

It’s a tiny room and already felt crowded with 7 visitors before the kids came it. When they arrived, they immediately procured chairs for each of us (like dwarves in a hobbit hole) and quickly rearranged the desks in the cramped room into 4 pods of 6-7 students. All the students were seniors, primarily African-American and Latino, and seemed relaxed, but focused as they strolled in and took out their homework. Tyson came in, chatted with the students a bit, and then quickly said “4 minutes.” Immediately, the groups started discussing their previous night’s homework with a high level of focus. There were three questions on the assignment, but they were only focused on the first one. It became clear that none of them were really confident about their answers. They all had some part of it done, but they were working furiously to figure it out together. And then it became clear why. Tyson’s watch beeped, he turned to a student, and said, “Let’s do it.”

The expectation was that the student would be able to speak coherently for two minutes about the problem. That’s a high pressure situation, but the student did well...for about 30 seconds.

When she started to falter, he said, “ So you need more time. Cool. Two more minutes.”

And the kids dove right back into the problem with their groups. After two minutes, he called on another student who attempted the same thing.

This cycle of two minutes of group work, followed by a student being put on the spot to explain the problem, continued until he felt they all had it. It took about 40 minutes to finish the problem.

During group time, Tyson almost never talked to the students. When students were “on stage,” he would occasionally intervene, usually when kids were being vague or unclear. The word “it” and other non-specific pronouns were verboten. As a result, the vocabulary usage was outstanding. Sometimes, a student would ask a probing question if the speaker was finished. Most of the time, though, Tyson sent it back to the groups so they could refine their understanding. At one point, he thought that about 30% of them had the answer satisfactorily, so he sent it back to the groups so that the other 70% could nail it down. After that, a few students were still unsure about one part of the problem. He asked one of them to do the 2 minute drill, and she still struggled. When they came out of group, she was not really gung ho about trying again, but her team rallied behind her and she acquitted herself well.

It was amazing to see this group of kids, with a little prodding and no direct instruction, develop a precise description of this complex calculus problem as a team. Powerful stuff.

Key Takeaways:

Homework was limited, but completely relevant; it was preparation for the next day’s class. This wasn’t practice, but a problem-solving exercise that they needed to tackle at home. According to both kids and teacher, everyone always did their homework for fear of not being able to contribute to the team the next day. Teacher never checked HW; it was too shameful for students to skip it so he could assume it was done.
The kids did all the heavy lifting - both in and out of class - but they didn’t do it in isolation.

Precision was the name of the game. Kids needed to be precise to meet expectations. New vocabulary, notation, etc. was introduced on homework and was expected to be used in class.

Tyson believed, and got his students to believe, that they could figure out the answer themselves. This was not the cliche of teamwork; this was inspiring teamwork.

The group was the key to learning. By having more than one or two minds working together on a problem, the ability to problem solve was enhanced in major ways.

Tyson believed that even the most confused kid in class would be able to give a two minute oration on the problem before the class could move on.

Key Questions:

How does this work with mixed ability classes?

How does this work with younger kids?

How do kids master these skills without much practice?

How do you write three questions per day that hit the exact point you want to make?


Tyson said that last year, 75% of the class passed the AP exam with about 30% earning the top score of 5.

If you ever get a chance to see this class, don’t pass it up. It’s amazing!

Mike G again:

Thanks Paul.  Since the Chicago Bulls will crush the Boston Celtics this year, I'd be remiss if I didn't tout Boston's competence in this area as well.  Match teacher Eddie Jou had 90% of his class pass the AP Calc exam last year.  Sounds like we could get a friendly competition going....?  The Escalante Cup?