In summer, kids’ thoughts turn to algebra


Minnesota is falling further behind in the No Child Left Behind-motivated ranking of schools making annual yearly progress, according to a story by MPR’s Tim Nelson today. In many ways, anecdotal evidence suggests, we’ve almost stopped being alarmed by the steady drumbeat of bad education news. If you listen to enough politicians — and talk shows — you’d swear our kids are stupid, and our teachers are relatively incompetent, and there’s not a heck of a lot we can do about it.

I’ll see your anecdotal evidence, and raise you one week in Minneapolis where kids have actually chosen to spend the gorgeous weather inside three schools, learning algebra concepts, from teachers who have taken a pay cut to teach them.

elizabeth_algebrar.jpgThe week is being coordinated by Elizabeth Bortke, who’s been working on this week’s program — called B.A.S.E. (Believe, Achieve, Support, Educate) camp — since last March. She talked to more than 4,500 students earlier this year, to convince them that algebra can be interesting, and relevant, and that a week indoors can prepare them for whatever they want to achieve in life. Four-hundred-forty-one kids took her up on the offer. She also recruited 44 teachers.

The state is pushing down the curriculum for math. Kids will have to learn it sooner. “Instead of having algebra taken in high school, now, our 5th graders from last year will be the first class to have to take algebra in the 8th grade,” according to Bortke.

Bortke looked for a program that would teach algebra differently “instead of the 2x + 4 = 6 approach.” The kids first learn concepts through a visual manner — they were playing games involving numbers on dice when I was at the Field School this afternoon. Then they learn the formula behind the game, which is — if you’re like me — the kind of scrawling that gave you bad dreams at night well into your adult years. We had to learn the formula and then try to figure out what that had to do with “real things.” These kids see “real things” and then see the formula. (Listen)

“I’m learning a lot,” one teacher told me. “I have a classroom of girls and it’s interesting to see the difference from a classroom where you have both genders. Girls have their work and they seem to be a little bit quieter and they get down to business. When I’ve had mixed genders, the girls don’t get that opportunity because the classroom tends to be louder with both the boys and the girls together.”

More girls than boys are attending this week’s sessions.


“I don’t think the District is thinking this week is going to change things dramatically, but it’s our first baby step in helping our kids improve and arming them with the tools

they need to be successful,” Bortke told me. The Minneapolis Public Schools will track the students who attend this week’s B.A.S.E. camp over their school years to see how well — and if — this approach works.

The kids seem to get it. One 8th-grader-to-be called her cousin to tell her, “you have to be here, it’ll give you a step up.” While I visited today, the cousin showed up, smiling, introduced herself to Bortke and nearly ran with her to the classroom.

Kids today, eh?

  • brian

    This kind of thing is great.

    As a math major, I think the more people that don’t say “Ooohh……” when you tell them you are a math major the better. We need to get over the idea that Math is too hard to understand for any normal person. I think programs like this will help to do that.

  • Alanna

    I think the fact that there were more girls than boys is telling of how things have changed. I loved math when I was younger (still do) and would have loved to have this opportunity. I think it’s great that kids will be learning algebra and more advanced maths at a younger age. They should do the same with languages.

  • Audrey Eiche

    How fabulous and refreshing it is to see such dedicated teachers who are not only willing to go beyond their required duties, but are also open-minded and wise enough to teach children “outside the book” and show them how to apply their knowledge to real life!