Future math teachers instruct, learn from rural school children

Middleschoolers working with a hands-on project.Giddy at the end of another school year, middle schoolers in Nespelem, Washington, will charge into summer with a new way of viewing even their oldest and most familiar things, thanks to a WSU mathematics professor and her students.

Clinical Associate Professor Kimberly Vincent and a small group of aspiring math teachers visited the sixth through eighth graders at their school last fall and used some of the youngsters’ prized possessions—from spiraled seashells to a violin—to teach them about ratios and how to calculate proportions.

The future teachers provided hands-on guidance in mathematical reasoning while they gained valuable classroom experience and drew critical insights from their pupils.

“It was thrilling to actually use the teaching skills I have been learning at WSU,” said 2019 mathematics graduate Catherine Lindner of Buckley, Washington. “It was also really good for me to learn firsthand the importance of culture within the community.”

Kimberly Vincent
Kimberly Vincent

‘Intersections of Gender, Culture, and Mathematics’

Lindner was among 15 students in Vincent’s “Intersections of Gender, Culture, and Mathematics” course who drove more than three hours from WSU Pullman to Nespelem to experience teaching in a rural, culturally diverse school. Most of Nespelem’s approximately 225 residents are Native American and many are underemployed. Nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty.

It was the seventh year that Vincent has led small groups of preservice teachers to work with and learn from the middle school teachers and their students while supplementing their instruction in applied math.

“The middle school students get a chance to practice solving mathematical problems using tools other than a pencil, relying on critical thinking and cooperation,” Vincent said. “And the WSU students get a chance to break out of their comfort zones and experience teaching and dealing with youth who may face a variety of challenges,” she said.

“In the secondary math program, we emphasize understanding our students’ culture and how that informs our teaching and why it should inform our teaching. The preservice teachers who go to Nespelem learn about Native culture and they see the impacts of poverty and other social issues,” Vincent said.

“They learn that culture does have a huge impact on teaching. They learn so much about how to communicate. They learn to be flexible. They learn that no matter how prepared you are you still have to think on your feet and make split-second decisions. They learn the importance of formative assessment and how to adapt teaching. They learn teaching is exhausting, exhilarating, and challenging.”

In addition to math instruction, Vincent and her students “open up possibilities” for the youngsters, said Marcy Horne, principal of Nespelem Elementary School.

“Our students need positive role models that can influence their decisions for a healthy and productive future. Visiting college students help fill that need,” said Horne, who is a graduate of WSU. “I want to create a college-going culture for our students and help them plan for their future. Any time we can include college into their day brings them one step closer to reaching their dreams.”

Kaleidoscopes to tin men

middle school students at table
Nespelem middle schoolers learn how to measure surface area through the hands-on project of building miniature tin men out of cardboard and aluminum foil.

Vincent, who has been on WSU faculty since 1998, designed the innovative school-visitation program and a related program, the Inland Northwest Math Experience, which brings students and teachers from middle and high schools across Washington to the WSU Pullman campus to engage in hands-on math learning activities.

Working with current and future teachers and younger school children is “very rewarding,” she said. “It is a passion of mine. It means a lot to watch a child who is disengaged suddenly find a way into a project using a talent they have, whether it’s drawing or doing calculations or making plans. It is a very different experience than teaching college and watching our students mature and become adults.”

For Kyle Cance, a non-traditional WSU mathematics student from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, the opportunity to step outside his comfort zone was a step toward becoming a better teacher, he said.

Kyle Cance
Kyle Cance

“This program is valuable because it presents us, as college students, with new perspectives,” Cance said. “Working with diverse students and those who face significant challenges—whether it’s at home, in the community, or at school—prepares us to work more effectively with students from many backgrounds.”

Together, Vincent and her students devise learning activities that will intrigue and resonate with easily distracted youngsters. Crafting lessons that are meaningful, memorable, and affordable requires more than a little creativity, she said.

“In teaching about geometry and the number of sides in a polygon, we had the kids build kaleidoscopes from mailing tubes and mirrors. Another year, we taught about surface area and they each built their own tin man that required calculating the most efficient amount of aluminum foil needed to cover a cardboard box that formed the body, toilet paper tubes for arms and legs, and a foam ball for the head.”

Making math meaningful and fun

After visiting the Nespelem middle school at least twice each fall with different groups of five or six preservice teachers, Vincent has become a “constant” in the youngsters’ lives, Cance said.

“Math teacher is a high-turnover position, so it’s important for the students to see Dr. Kim and people like us who are impassioned about the subject and impassioned about teaching it. They learn that, ‘Hey, math really can be fun, and here’s what I can do with it.’”

Vincent’s students take turns leading various stages of the year’s lesson. During hands-on activities, they sit with groups of pupils to ask probing questions about the mathematics and to keep the youngsters on task. During lunch and recess they relax with the Neseplem students and talk about sports, school, and college life.

“We usually share if we are first-generation college students and explain how to gain access to universities,” Vincent said. “At recess we might all play four square or basketball or swing with the Nesepelem kids. A young man even broke the gender barrier to play Double Dutch jump rope with the middle school girls. One of my preservice teachers found the experience so moving, she chose to teach on a reservation when she graduated.”

Cance, who’s starting graduate school in education this fall to become a teacher, found the experience transformative as well. “It’s driving me to want to do more and to make a difference through my teaching—not just to settle or try to find a cushy teaching job somewhere, but to go somewhere that I can take my passion, take my knowledge, and take my experiences to make a difference.”

The mathematics teacher training programs advance WSU’s Drive to 25 by delivering innovative teaching, community outreach, and transformative student experience. They align with WSU’s land-grant mission and Grand Challenges goal of advancing opportunity and equity through education and social justice.

Top photo: Mathematics student Catherine Lindner, right, helps Nespelem, Washington, middle school students measure a GI Joe doll to compare the unrealistic doll’s height to their average height.

–By Adrian Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences