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The Art of Teaching Math



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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, September 13, 2010
At Albert Schweitzer Elementary in Carmichael about 30 fourth graders are filing into the art room. Today they'll be having fun with art and music. But they'll also be getting a double dose of math.

After a quick singalong, music teacher LaVerne Stayton points to a chart.  It shows musical notes arranged in a pyramid..

[AUDIO: Each one of these notes gets a different value.  So if these two have to equal four, how many is each of them worth?  Two.  This is kind of like math, guys.  It's like fractions, huh?]

LAVERNE STAYTON: Just by teaching music we cover math, I mean music is math.

And by highlighting that relationship, Stayton is reinforcing what kids learn in their regular math lessons. But Stayton says it's not just what she teaches, it's the new way in which she's teaching.

LAVERNE STAYTON: In years past I would have said this is a whole note it gets four beats. This is a half note.  And just told them.  How much more meaningful is it to them to figure this out?  'Oh there's a relationship here.'  And that's what they're going to have to do in life.  They'e gonna have to come up with the answers themselves.

After the music lesson, art teacher Jeff Armstrong takes over.  He gives out hunks of clay to the kids with instructions to roll the hunks into balls.

[ARMSTRONG: When you have it rolled you should roll it into a fairly smooth ball.  What's another name for this ball? Somebody raise your hand and tell me… Travis? TRAVIS: Sphere. ARMSTRONG:  Sphere.  Here's what we're going to do, you're gonna cut this sphere of clay into two equal parts.]

Next Armstrong has the kids roll one of the halves into another ball and cut that in half.  They continue the process, stacking each progressively smaller ball in snowman-like fashion. With each cut, they write down a fraction on a piece of paper.  Armstrong is the arts specialist at Schweitzer Elementary.

JEFF ARMSTRONG:  I have always loved math too.  So whenever I get a chance to do something with measuring, something with counting, something with fractions, I always accentuate that.

 

[ARMSTRONG: Does anybody have the next fraction…one two hunded and fifty sixth."]

Watching all of this closely in the back of the room was Darby Gerke, the regular classroom teacher of these fourth graders.  

DARBY GERKE: My kids were extremely engaged.  They were so quiet and into it, listening, wanting more.  It was very exciting to watch them.

Gerke says she was inspired by the idea of using art and music in her own teaching of core subjects.

DARBY GERKE:  We have to move away from text books, get hands on.  And I think kids will come around.  I mean they're  using creativity.  They're using their critical skills. 

Craig Faniani is the Visual and Performing Arts co-ordinator for San Juan Schools. His work is part of a growing trend in education called arts integration.

CRAIG FANIANI: It's almost a misnomer maybe to say arts integration.  Because it already should be together.

Faniani says instead of using rote memorization or so-called drill and kill methods of teaching, educators should be engaging both the analytical left side and the creative right side of the brain.

CRAIG FANIANI: So one side says 'ah, I got this idea.'  And the other side says 'let's talk about that.'  You know so there's this conversation.   And that's when a kid will say 'oh!'  And that's when a teacher a teacher goes 'yes!' 

Arts integration may be an emerging trend but art teacher Jeff Armstrong says it's not a new idea.

JEFF ARMSTRONG  Because this is what classroom teachers used to do.   Not fifty years ago there was a piano in every classroom. So they taught art and they integrated it into their lessons.

Although Faniani has just started to formalize his arts integration programs, he's already thinking of ways to expand.

CRAIG FANIANI:  For instance in Israel they teach geometry through origami, and they learn it really really well. 

But how does it work for Brandon and Riley at Schweitzer elementary? 

[PC WITH BRANDON AND RILEY:]  (PC) If you just had a math class only, a lesson where you're learning about math… is that fun?  (Brandon) Nope.  (PC) No, you're not a big math fan.  Now how about if you do it with something else like clay, why was it more fun?  (Brandon) Because you got to play with it and you got to smoosh it and you got to create with it.  It was pretty fun.  (Riley) Yeah,  it was fun.

And Faniani says… kids learn best when they're having fun.
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