Kids often seem to hate math, but not in Kara Nelson's class.
The teacher at Bozeman's new Meadowlark School had her fourth- and fifth-graders literally in the palm of her hand during a lesson on the definition of a gram.
“A gram is a measurement,” Nelson said slowly, “of how much something weighs.”
She and her students recited the definition several times, each time spreading their hands wide for “how much” and then miming holding something heavy in their hands for “something weighs.”
Then kids got out small scales. They were excited to measure how many coffee beans it takes to make one gram, and then how many pasta noodles, paper clips, grains of rice, drops of water, teaspoons of flour and pieces of candy corn.
They weren't passively memorizing a definition from a textbook. They were detectives — “investigating” in Nelson's word.
Because of her skills teaching math using the new Common Core curriculum, Nelson was chosen as one of only 30 math “master teachers” in the nation whose lessons are being recorded and videotaped to share with other teachers around the country.
The National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers union, has teamed up with the for-profit lesson-sharing site, Better Lesson.com, to create a bank of lessons. Just 95 math and English teachers were selected, and offered the incentive of $15,000 stipends, to record and share all their lessons for one year.
Every day Nelson has 50 pictures or videos taken of kids learning math, to document how her teaching has changed as she puts the Common Core into practice. She said she has really had to pick apart and consider how she teaches. “Every lesson I teach has to be good enough to put online.”
With the Common Core's emphasis on getting kids ready for college and careers, she said, “Lessons are more real-world.”
Lessons are also more in-depth. In the past, her kids might have learned about grams and kilograms in the textbook, and then moved on quickly to the next subject. Now they're studying grams for a full week, to ensure all students understand, and they're doing more hands-on learning and inquiry.
Which do you think is bigger, she asked students – a gram or a kilogram? Lots of hands shot up.
The sign language Nelson used to teach the definition of a gram is called “total physical response,” she said. “When they act it out, it helps them learn better. It's way more fun, too.”
“She's an awesome math teacher,” said Cassie Francis, 10. “I like how she takes a pace slowly and waits until everybody gets it. She starts out easy and gets harder and harder.”
Even though the ideas get harder, said Tommy Hart, 9, “It seems like it's … easy.”
“We're feeling pretty luck to have her,” Principal Sharon Navas said of Nelson, who is also a nationally board-certified teacher. Being chosen for the Better Teacher project is “quite an honor … She's just really amazing.”
Nelson, 32, who graduated from Bozeman High School and Montana State University, has been a teacher for nine years. Right after college, she couldn't find a job here, so worked in California, Oregon and Washington.
“I can't tell you how grateful I am to be in this beautiful school,” Nelson said, “and to look at the beautiful Bridger mountains every day. It's good for the soul.”
She added she loves the kids and “those moments when you know you've changed the way they look at something.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.