by Tom Parisi
The way Jim Sheridan sees it, the middle school years might just represent the “last best chance” for some students.
Sheridan teaches eighth-grade mathematics at Rockford Environmental Science Academy (RESA). He sees many adolescents who straddle the boundary between academic success and failure at a time when they need to have a solid grasp of their studies, particularly mathematics, to be successful in high school.
“I see too many kids right on that fence line,” Sheridan says.
“They’re either going to make it and be successful students or they will be at-risk high school students. It could well be our last best chance to reach, motivate and encourage students and to make math special in their lives.”
This past fall, the Department of Mathematical Sciences at NIU launched a unique master’s degree specialization that will provide Sheridan and other teachers with a highly advanced level of expertise as they reach out to students and make important connections between math and the real world.
Believed to be the first of its kind in Illinois, the degree program is open to any qualified teacher but is specially designed for certified teachers who teach, or intend to teach, middle school mathematics.
It was launched as the centerpiece of “Excellence in the Middle,” a $1 million multi-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the Illinois State Board of Education through a grant to NIU. Mathematics professors Helen Khoury and Mary Shafer are directing the project.
The grant supports a partnership between NIU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences and the Rockford Public Schools in an effort to increase the effectiveness of the district’s middle school mathematics teachers and ultimately heighten students’ interest and achievement in the subject and improve classroom performance.
An initial cohort of 25 Rockford teachers, representing about half of all Rockford middle school math teachers, is beginning its second semester of work at NIU-Rockford. The teachers will complete the master’s program over three years. For cohort members, the Excellence in the Middle project covers their expenses.
“We need to make mathematics meaningful and relevant to all of our students, and there’s a high need for this type of graduate level specialization, both at the national and the regional levels,” Khoury says. “Middle school mathematics teachers need to become more qualified in mathematics, in mathematics education and in understanding the mathematical reasoning as well as the behavior of the middle school child.”
The Excellence in the Middle project selected teachers in the initial cohort based on their leadership potential. “We’re hoping they evolve as teacher leaders within their classrooms, buildings and district – that’s a major component of our project,” Khoury adds.
Sheridan leapt at the opportunity, even though he already has a master’s degree.
“We don’t devote enough resources specifically to math. For this to be offered is truly unique,” he says, adding that the cohort already has a tight bond. “Everyone has an interest in middle-grade mathematics. This program is exactly the type of training I need to be able to better prepare our students for success in high school.”
Raising students’ performance and interest in mathematics and science is a national priority. At the state level, an NIU Outreach team in recent years conducted extensive studies on the status of science, technology, engineering and math education, identifying critical needs that must be met to keep the state competitive.
Initial teacher certification programs in Illinois certify teachers for either kindergarten through ninth grade, or for the sixth- through 12th-grades. Yet, as any teacher knows, curricula and student needs vary widely at different grade levels, and the middle school years need specialized and qualified teachers.
“This is the first master’s degree specialization program at NIU specifically for middle school math teachers and one of the few in the Midwest,” says Professor Shafer, co-director of the Excellence in the Middle project. “A lot of the research points to middle school as the time we need to tap our students in terms of developing their mathematical skills and reasoning.”
The middle school years are particularly challenging for both teachers and students. During adolescence, students are changing physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. And these changes occur at widely varying rates from one student to the next.
“Adolescents are starting to think about the skills and attributes they have and how they will put these qualities to work in school and eventually in a career,” says NIU Professor M Cecil Smith, an educational psychologist who specializes in the study of cognitive change.
Smith is teaching a course in the master’s program that will help teachers focus on how they can support and sustain their students’ identity formation, a critical task for adolescents.
“Most math teachers only get one lecture on adolescents’ identity formation. In this program, we deliver an entire course because it’s crucial information for middle school teachers. They’re not only teaching math, they’re teaching students. So they must understand students’ psychological and emotional needs. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how much you know about math. You’re not going to connect.”
It’s not only students who need to make connections between mathematics and the real world. So do teachers.
“Students need to understand that mathematics is important to all aspects of life,” Shafer says. “When we’re trying to reach more students, the teachers themselves need to understand how mathematics can be applied in many areas. This helps the teachers learn mathematics in a deeper way.”
Teachers in the master’s program meet at NIU-Rockford for a full day of instruction on two Saturdays of each month. Meanwhile, NIU professors visit the teachers in their classrooms and meet with them during the week to establish support groups and to help them develop as a learning community. The middle school teachers also are required to complete their own mathematics education research-based projects within their classrooms.
NIU boasts one of the largest programs in Illinois for preparing secondary school mathematics teachers.
About a dozen NIU faculty members in mathematical sciences and various other disciplines participated in planning the new master’s degree program.
During the summer, the Rockford teachers will take courses in DeKalb taught by NIU professors in the sciences, engineering and mathematics. By working and studying in the labs of scientists and engineers, teachers will become more aware of the interplay between mathematics and emerging technologies.
“I’ve always been a believer that math and science shouldn’t be pushed so far apart from each other,” says Pam Hilgert, special projects coordinator for Rockford Public Schools. “So many times students look at geometry and algebra and say, ‘When will I ever use this?’ I think this program will enable teachers to help their students see the importance of math and understand how it relates to life.”