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Teacher Talks: Ben Schwartz, Middle School Math Teacher

Ben Schwartz, 8th grade math teacher, situates his curriculum within real-world contexts in order to bring math to life for his students and help them make fundamental connections between math and other subjects. 

"I have a policy in my class which I call ‘no validations of innumeracy.’ The phrase, ‘I’m not a math person’ usually reflects that someone was only doing procedures and repetition. If math were carpentry, arithmetic would be the sanding. No one gets excited about the sanding part of making beautiful wooden creations. Carpentry is the combination of vision, material, tool and skill – and math is the same way.

Everyone who dedicates themselves to math can do it. That’s a major life lesson I want my eighth graders to come away with – that if they pour themselves into this, they can be successful.

Ben leads class

I think it's more valuable (not to mention more fun) to investigate mathematics in real contexts, be they historical, statistical, financial, environmental or whimsical. Math is designed to solve real problems, so the problems we’re solving have to be real.

For example, our unit on exponential growth looked at the topic of invasive species, using an algebraic formula to calculate the populations of invasive species in ecosystems around the world.

I individualize my approach to teaching math in a variety of ways. A small class size is one important aspect. Another key element is having a good task. A good task has an entry point for everyone: like a hop-on, hop-off tourist bus, everyone can come into it somewhere and exit it somewhere else. They may be moving at different paces or achieving different things, but everyone is moving forward.

You’ll see that each of the tables [in my area] is designed with one open seat, so that I can pull up a chair. I’m constantly moving around interacting with students, keeping my head on a swivel to look for that kid who needs a certain question asked of them. It’s so easy for kids to use the phrase, ‘I don’t get it.’ The way I respond to that question is, ‘Tell me the last thing you got,’ which is a way to teach them self-advocacy. The combination of flexible groups, good tasks, and a student-centered approach provides both extensions for high-fliers and mediations for those who are struggling.

Every unit culminates with a two-week research project in which students take the math we examined in class and relate it to a topic that they’re passionate about. I like kids to find their own data. If someone else is handing you the data, you’re missing a critical step of being a mathematician and a solver of puzzles. We want kids to find agency and collaborate, to learn to find the answers for themselves."

Teacher Talks is a series spotlighting the educators of Calhoun and their approach to progressive education.