“My big confession is that I failed eighth grade math,” shares Glen Seelenbrandt with an appreciation for irony. “It was particularly devastating because I had never received a grade below an A. I saw my teacher four days a week after school and continued to struggle.” But as soon as he entered ninth grade, Mr. Seelenbrandt “flew through the curriculum” and took a liking to solving complex problems and equations. He went on to receive an M.Ed. in Mathematics Education from Lesley University and now has more than 20 years of independent school teaching experience. Today, Mr. Seelenbrandt teaches math on the Upper Campus and instructs middle school students in courses like Pre-Algebra and Honors Algebra.
This phenomenon is not unique to Mr. Seelenbrandt. Head of School Jody Soja, an avid researcher of brain science, shares that “students are only just beginning to grasp abstract concepts that often appear in middle school math.” She explains that each child’s brain matures from a concrete to an abstract way of thinking at different rates during these formative years. Furthermore, Ms. Soja notes that “learning at this age is often non-linear. A student might grasp a complex, abstract concept on Tuesday and fumble through it on Thursday.”
With this in mind, our math curriculum is founded on the idea that differentiation in the classroom and a deep understanding of each child’s strengths and needs are the most important ways to provide a solid foundation in mathematics. “We have to know each student really well,” states Sheryl Knapp, the school’s Math Department Chair. “In addition to our ongoing assessments, the needs of students emerge through detailed discussions among faculty at various points throughout the year, which helps us place students into the optimal courses.” This approach sets students up for success in more traditionally structured classroom settings once they enroll in Geometry or Algebra 2.
Our unique classroom model affords students an opportunity to learn and master core mathematical concepts at a pace that feels appropriately challenging. The ability to supplement lecture-based instruction with online videos from programs like Khan Academy provides students with a sense of control over their learning. Math instructor Geoff Perkins says the curriculum he and his colleagues developed was generated with a diverse range of student needs in mind. “We have a wide breadth of abilities, interests, and levels in our classes,” he says, pointing out that some students might gravitate toward self-pacing through the use of technology while other students learn best with more direct interaction. It all depends on the student, and “that’s where the art of teaching comes in,” attests Mr. Perkins. “We meet students where they are, while also gently pushing them to take on new challenges.”
The class structure also emphasizes group work, giving kids an opportunity to become teachers themselves. Academic Dean Flynn Corson believes that, “learning is clearly the path to knowing; but when students are able to share newly acquired knowledge—especially with their peers—they are often brought to a place of much deeper understanding.” The result is a math community in which students support each other, and also push each other to improve. On some days instructors will introduce a topic to the group, and other days students will break out into small groups or work independently through the material. While certain aspects of the curriculum are flexible, students are continually held accountable for displaying their grasp of the material.
Math Department Chair Sheryl Knapp remarks, “We love working with this age group because each day is different; we are passionate about helping students navigate this time, and we work hard to ensure they develop an understanding of and appreciation for mathematical concepts and material that will prepare them for their next steps.”