Roots of Unity

Roots of Unity

Mathematics: learning it, doing it, celebrating it.

Award-Winning Teachers Put Math on Hands and Heads


Patrick Honner (runner-up), Saul Rosenthal (Trustee and Sponsor), and Scott Goldthorp (winner) pose for a photo at the announcement of the winner of the first annual Rosenthal Prize for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching. Image: Museum of Mathematics

Many math teachers have a hands-on approach to their subject, but those hands aren't usually covered in finger paint. Scott Goldthorp, however, sometimes teaches messy math classes. Goldthorp, a teacher at Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was the grand prize winner of the inaugural Rosenthal Prize for innovation in math teaching, sponsored by the recently opened Museum of Mathematics and awarded during MoMath's opening week last December.

The Rosenthal Prize aims both to provide incentives to outstanding math teachers with new ideas and to disseminate those ideas as widely as possible. In addition to cash prizes, Goldthorp and runner-up Patrick Honner will have their winning lessons distributed to schools around the country later this year.

Goldthorp's lesson plan covers some basic concepts in statistics. To make the lesson exciting, Goldthorp has the students create their own data set. He hangs butcher paper on the wall and has students roll up their sleeves and paint their palms. Each student places two handprints on the butcher paper: one from a standing position, and one at the top of a jump. Students measure the heights of each handprint and the distances between the standing and jumping prints. "The beginning part is a little messy," Goldthorp says. "I think that's necessary to get the students excited about it. Once they get excited about it, they can do anything they want."

Goldthorp, who teaches science in addition to math, welcomes the non-mathematical inquiry that the lesson fosters. "It was surprising for the students that the taller people didn't necessarily jump higher than the shorter students in the class." They talk about why this might be and have some interesting discussions on anatomy and physiology in addition to statistics. "It's fun having those conversations with the students," Goldthorp says.

To me, part of the beauty of this lesson is how simple and easy it is to implement. Pretty much every middle school in the country can get some paint and butcher paper, and the math topics it teaches are part of the standard curriculum, so teachers won't have to add a new topic to their schedules.

Goldthorp says that students respond very positively to hands-on lessons like this. "When I first started doing it, the students seemed a little apprehensive: This is math class, we should just be calculating numbers!" says Goldthorp. "At the beginning of the year, they might be out of their comfort zone. But after they get used to it, they love it."

Runner-up Patrick Honner, a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York, submitted a very different lesson. He has students work in groups make hats for spheres. As a sometimes wearer of mathematically inspired hats, I approve. Honner's lesson emphasizes concepts in solid geometry while allowing kids to let their creative, artistic sides show too. "Students reflected that it was nice to have not just an image of certain solids, but this direct experience with how you put them together."


A sphere wears a hexagonal hat. Image: Patrick Honner

In Honner's classroom, the hat lesson was very open-ended. But for the competition he created a more structured set of activities so that teachers will be able to modify the projects for students of different ages and levels of mathematical sophistication. Honner's classes are interactive and flexible whenever possible. "I try to create opportunities to explore ideas with students," he says. "I want the classroom to be a place where we explore ideas together, where students can play around, experiment, collaborate, argue, create, and reflect on everything." Honner is active in Math for America and writes for the New York Times Learning Network in addition to his personal blog.

Honner has gotten positive feedback on hands-on lessons like this one. "Students really enjoy opportunities to collaborate in a meaningful way," he says. "They enjoy seeing how creative their classmates are."

This sphere is thirsty 4 math. Image: Patrick Honner

It's easy for me to get discouraged by the seemingly constant barrage of negative stories about mathematics education. But the Rosenthal Prize reminds me that there are a lot of great teachers in our classrooms who are reaching students in fun ways. If you are one of those teachers, you have until May 10 to submit a lesson plan for this year's Rosenthal Prize.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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