Hofstra University Professor Helps Improve Math Education in Crown Heights

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Blidi Stemn and Zenobia Frypher in discussion. Chikaodili Okaneme/ The Brooklyn Ink

In Crown Heights’ M.S. 394, it was time for math in Jean Graham’s  5th grade class.  On her green chalkboard, she wrote in white chalk: “Today we will continue to practice using data to plot a line graph. We will also interpret data from, and look at how, line graphs can be applied to real world situations.”

Line graphs can often seem too abstract for fifth graders to understand, or even care about.  But if the students can connect a math principle to real life, new concepts such as a line graph might be easier to learn.

Her attempt to make such connections is new, too. Rather than teaching the entire lesson herself, while the children simply watched, Graham had the students form small groups to discuss the math problem and data amongst themselves. They then presented their results to the rest of the class.

The students proved to be very resourceful. One group’s line graph even charted decreasing stock prices to illustrate a market crash. In the end, the students gave themselves a round of applause. Some cheered when the teacher said they would continue their math lesson the next day.

Math education is suffering in American schools as the country has fallen behind most other industrial countries. But this turn of fortune in its popularity, at least in M.S. 394, is the handiwork of Blidi Stemn, a passionate, soft-spoken mathematics education professor at Hofstra University.  Through New York State’s Teacher/Leader Quality Partnerships program, Stemn has been working with teachers at M.S. 394 since October to improve their math skills and teaching techniques.

“What is really good about this,” Stemn said with a Liberian accent, is that “it is [about] in-class professional development…done [regularly], not once a year [or] twice a year. Every week we come together and talk about mathematics.”

For the past six years, Stemn has been going to schools in Long Island and Brooklyn, particularly to those whose students are doing poorly in math. He assesses the teachers’ math education skills and offers them his expertise. “He’s excellent at what he does and has a very solid math mind” said Dr. Anthony Robinson, Assistant Dean and Executive Director of Hofstra’s Center for Educational Access and Success. He “brings a very unique approach to math.”

Before working at M.S. 394, Stemn worked with two Hempstead, Long Island schools for about four years. In one school, only 53% of its fourth graders were passing math at the state level. But after working with one teacher, Stemn said that by the next year 93% of that teacher’s students were passing with far higher math test scores.

“What did you do?!” Stemn remembers the school principal asking in amazement. “It was just helping [the teacher] to understand the mathematics himself,” Stemn replied, “because if you do not know the content, you can’t teach it well.”

Along with one-on-one mentoring of teachers, Stemn helped M.S. 394 create “a community” in which he had teachers join in “a culture of discussion” about how they teach.  Teachers go to each other’s classes and later provide constructive feedback on technique and performance.  Stemn also engages the teachers in group sessions to discuss the fundamentals behind the mathematics they teach.

“The conversation is ongoing about [what they] need to do,” he said. “They find it very valuable…because they haven’t had the opportunity to do that.”

Dr. Blidi Stemn, a professor at Hofstra University. Chikaodili Okaneme/ The Brooklyn Ink

Stemn’s group of ten M.S. 394 teachers is the largest that he has worked with at one school. The teachers vary in their level of teaching experience and math proficiency, but he is seeing progress even in the first few months. Students “need to touch, see, feel and make sense of mathematics” he said, “and I’m seeing that happen.”

Zenobia Frypher, who has over 20 years of teaching experience, noted that Stemn’s influence is shifting the teachers’ views on learning. “Sometimes [teachers] tend to go on and on…rather than delve into the work and have [students] solve the problems,” she said. But teachers are gradually changing their old ways to help enrich the quality of their students’ learning experiences.

“The students enjoy it, but the teachers were a bit timid at first” she said. “As teachers we tend not to like too many different people or strangers coming in the classroom…but I think now people are taking it [as] something positive.”

Stemn hopes to work with M.S. 394 for the next few years. This spring, he also plans to start preparing his research for future publication.

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