Dr. Sarah Watt with Talawanda students
Dr. Sarah Watt with Talawanda students

Miami-Talawanda Math Club Puts the "Fun" in Fundamentals

James M. Loy, Miami University

There is one place, not far from here, where among the halls of a local school, math is actually becoming a fun and exciting subject.

“Students tell me that they look forward to Math Club and now enjoy math,” says Tammi Waite, a Talawanda Middle School sixth grade math teacher. “It is so amazing.”

At first, this may seem hard to believe. Though so too, perhaps, is the notion that almost anyone, regardless of initial ability or inclination, can get pretty good at learning and even teaching math.

Miami students tutoring at Talawanda Middle SchoolBut it’s true. At Talawanda Middle School a buzz is building. Here, an afterschool program that involves sixth grade school students and their Miami University college tutors is quickly boosting the abilities of all who participate.

“It is helping Talawanda students' math knowledge and number sense, but also their math confidence, which is essential,” Waite says. “Some students went from never volunteering in class to participating every day and leading group discussions. And the Miami students gained a lot of content knowledge and information about how to work with struggling students.”

Officially called “FUNdamentals Math Club,” the program is the result of ongoing partnership between Talawanda and Miami University’s College of Education, Health and Society (EHS), where Sarah Watt, assistant professor of educational psychology, serves as one of the primary architects.

“I have been working on preparing EHS special education candidates to be knowledgeable in math content as well as the pedagogy,” Watt says. “So we started this partnership. The purpose is to collaborate with the Talawanda math teachers, their special education teacher, and our Miami teacher education candidates to provide after school tutoring. And we don’t target just students with disabilities.Miami student working with students

We target any student who may need extra math support.”

A win-win for everyone

Watt, along with her Talawanda colleagues, sixth grade math teachers Waite and Don Gloeckner and special education teacher Kristi Herald, are all behind the math club’s design and evolution. And the program’s structure is simple.

Every Tuesday afternoon, Miami’s special education tutors first meet with the Talawanda teachers to go over the same math content that the middle school students have been covering. This gives the college tutors the chance to ask questions and review any unfamiliar material.

“We talked to them about some real misconceptions about certain mathematical concepts and explain how that concept builds a foundation and why that is important,” says Gloeckner. “It builds this really nice connection.”

Then on Thursday afternoon, armed with this relevant content knowledge, the college tutors come back to Talawanda much more prepared and ready to work directly with the middle school students, who are now also in a much better position to succeed.

Don Gloeckner working with student“It’s really a win-win for both of us,” Gloeckner says. “We have something that’s really pretty cool for everyone.”

This process not only helps struggling middle school students receive the focused one-on-one support they need, but it also helps the Miami special education majors prepare for a rapidly changing educational environment, one they must soon navigate as professional teachers themselves.

In the past, special education teachers would pull students out of general education classes and teach them remedial content. However, new legislation has changed graduation requirements and now all young students must pass the same algebra II and, in some states, trigonometry standards.

And this can be a tremendous challenge for both students with learning disabilities and current special education teachers, who must now somehow tailor increasingly advanced mathematical content to different kinds of learners.

“So [as a special education teacher] it becomes a balance of how much of the content do I have to know to provide good instruction and how much can the general education teacher guide me,” Watt says. “It’s like a marriage where the special education teacher is really the one thinking about how to modify the curriculum, and the content expert is the general education math teacher. But now they each need to know a little bit about both fields.”

More than a math club

So, really, what Miami’s EHS and Talawanda have built together is more than just a math club. It is actually a professional learning community.

It brings together experienced professional teachers, struggling middle schoolers, and college-aged special education tutors, many of whom themselves also expressed trepidation and uncertainly around teaching the very same mathematical concepts these middle schoolers are struggling to learn.

And so far, it’s working exceptionally well for everyone involved.

Watt’s research around the program shows significant increases in the self-efficacy of the special education majors who now feel much more confident, comfortable, and prepared to teach mathematics.

They also reported a greater understanding of the “why” around teaching various concepts, as opposed only previously understanding the “how” to solve certain problems.Student working with middle school student on math

“Tutors that participated in the program showed significant growth compared to those who focused on reading tutoring on follow-up math content knowledge measures,” Watt explains. “Specifically, tutors in the math club were able to visually model sixth to eighth grade math concepts and identify conceptual underpinnings with more accuracy than their peers.”

And as for the Talawanda middle schoolers? Watt also found significant increases in their motivation and performance as well, which are improvements their teachers are seeing back in the classroom. 

“Most students scored better on classroom assessments and students aren’t afraid of challenging questions,” says Waite. “Before, many would be hesitant to really dive into these difficult problems. So, overall, it is so beneficial.”

For many people, math is, perhaps, among the most feared of the general subjects. But often the real hurdle is the intimidation it can stir within, and then the discouragement and frustration that can easily escalate afterwards.

But by working closely with their college counterparts, these Talawanda middle schoolers are starting to realize that with practice and concentration they, too, can improve their mathematical abilities.

And their willingness and eagerness to forge ahead is growing as a result.

“I have 29 years of experience,” says Gloeckner. “And when I was working on my own to try and get kids to stay after school, it was much more difficult. But when I say, ‘Hey, Miami University college students are going to come and work with our class, we have over 40 kids that just sign up. They love it. It is really amazing to see.”

So today, scores are up, confidence is high, and all of a sudden math doesn’t seem so scary anymore.