Creating community opportunities in the math classroom

Steve Martell
Steve Martell

When I was in 6th grade, I was given an outstanding opportunity in math class to create the programming schedule for my very own television station using a layout grid and Cuisenaire rods. For the next 50 minutes, I used an assortment of different colors to design the perfect TV schedule.

The following day, my teacher kindly asked if showing four hours of “Star Trek” followed by eight hours of “Doctor Who” was a good idea and I was flummoxed. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? After a bit more prodding, I understood the key point she was trying to make, in my mind at least: I had only used 12 of my 18 hours.

Granted, this was back when television stations actually signed off for the night at midnight with the “Star-Spangled Banner” and an annoying tone. So I inserted a few episodes of “Star Trek: The Animated Series” and some “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” cartoons and we were off to the races. My television station was sure to be the No. 1 channel in the central Illinois area.

I realized much later that the lesson was to teach that scheduling is a real-world skill. This lesson was enveloped in a unit on fractional parts, and it helped me see that being able to divide a day into manageable chunks and allocate work to those chunks in a logical fashion would help me be successful regardless of the task at hand. Figuring out a fictional TV schedule, class schedules for the upcoming school year or something as simple as when to get my hair cut, the oil in my car changed and the errands run all within a three-hour span are meaningful skills. But those skills of time management and prioritization can be taught explicitly rather than acquired through experience – and that’s what we need to re-incorporate into mathematics education today.

Too many of our kids are woefully unprepared for real-world use of the skills they learn in the classroom. The best of them are very good at solving equations, dividing fractions and rotating shapes around a point, but when it comes to applying those skills, examples are hard to come by. Those skills are important, but will our students need to be able to solve a system of equations beyond Algebra 2?

For many of them, I think the answer is no. And it’s not because those things aren’t important to know – it’s just that we’ve made knowing them more important than using the skills behind them. We present those skills as the standards, literally and figuratively, by which they’ll be judged, and we hope that those standards match up with skills that are used every day by people doing all sorts of jobs.

How do I bring real-world work into my classroom? For years, teachers have asked community members to be guest speakers; who better knows the rigors of the job than those doing them right now? The issue becomes having those professionals incorporate math into their discussions with our students.

I had a terrible time trying to enlist help from my community, but I believe the problem was more in how I presented what I was asking. I approached a half dozen members of the community and was given, more or less, the same response: “Yes, math is important and I use it every day. No, I can’t tell you exactly where or when I use it – it’s not like I’m solving equations from dusk ‘til dawn.”

The shift occurred when I changed what I was asking. When asked a question regarding the Standards for Mathematical Practice, the discourse becomes much livelier. Ask the lawyer “How do you construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others?” and his or her eyes light up and they’ll regale you with stories of the courtroom with cross-examinations and re-cross. Ask a water quality official from the Commonwealth, “How do you attend to precision?” and you’re shown charts and graphs and water samples that have turned yellow and fluoresce under a black light with the glow that only E. coli can bring. Ask a chef “How do you model with mathematics? Why do foods with the same ingredients sometimes have different tastes?” and you’re led into discussions of texture, concentrations and chemical processes that occur with the cooking process.

Adjusting our aim when asking questions of our colleagues in the world outside the classroom brings better results than trying to force their professions into a math content lesson. Don’t worry about lawyers using accounting in billing their hours, worry about how they defend their positions and the tools they use to do that, because that’s the meat and potatoes of Math Practice 3. A mechanic knowing when to use a socket or a box wrench is literally Math Practice 5.

What, then, are we to do? Through my work with the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning beginning in 2016, I found the answer that worked for me: we shift our teaching to deliberately promote the math practices through the Kentucky Academic Standards for Mathematics rather than focus almost exclusively on the grade-specific content. We show students that those practices are used by all walks of life, day in and day out, regardless of profession. We use an activity such as the scheduling one from my youth that is, on its surface, rooted in fractions and make it real for our students.

Ultimately, we bring in members of the community that our students know and ask them how they use math in their work. But not just math – the math practices themselves. We let them see that making sense of problems and persevering in solving them is not just something we do in the math classroom – it’s something that people do every day, regardless of their job. We give them opportunities to reason and explain both with and without numbers.

Teaching math without numbers? YES! At the end of the day, our job as math teachers is to teach students how to use tools and to show them how those tools can be used to work through problems, not to tell them what problems to solve. Work on the processes of problem solving, of communicating, of reasoning, rather than the processes of solving equations, dividing fractions or adding exponents. When your students can explain how to do those things and why they work, they’ll be able to extend those skills beyond math – and that’s the whole point.


Steve Martell is an 8th-grade teacher at Henry County Middle School. In what little spare time he has with a newborn son, he enjoys amateur radio, flight simulation and finding ways to incorporate his love of video games into classroom instruction.