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Paynesville Press - November 20, 2002

Eighth grade class studying algebra at middle school

By Michael Jacobson

Starting this fall, eighth graders are solving linear equations like never before at Paynesville Area Middle School. This year, for the first time, one class of eighth graders at PAMS is taking algebra, a subject that traditionally has only been taught at the high school.

Todd Spanier, who is in his third year of teaching at PAMS, taught algebra to eighth graders during his five previous years of teaching in Buffalo. Upon coming to PAMS, the Paynesville native noticed that our math curriculum was not as advanced as that used in Buffalo. He immediately wanted to advance the curriculum and add algebra to eighth grade, but the timing wasn't right until this year.

With all the rearranging in the schedule at the middle school due to the effects of the budget cuts, Spanier decided he might as well suggest adding an algebra class in the eighth grade. "As long as there's so much change, let's throw something else in there," he thought.

The inquisitive algebra class is a teacher's dream, according to Todd Spanier. and has helped other classes.

In conferring with administration and the other math teachers, he found support for adding an algebra class in eighth grade. "I'm glad we're finally doing it," said Deb Gillman, the district's curriculum coordinator. "It's something we've wanted to do for several years."

Spanier has 26 students in the algebra class this year. Students were identified for the class by standardized test scores, by class performance, and by recommendations from math teachers and aides. Letters were sent to students and their parents, who could opt out of the class. None did, though one student left the district.

"My mom thought it'd be good for me," said eighth grader Kristi Louis. Erica Geurts, another eighth grader in the class, wanted to take algebra this year "because everything else would be a big review," she said.

Brad Hemmesch, another eighth grader, thinks it's fun to be challenged in algebra. The other math classes are too easy, he said.

In seventh grade, the introduction to algebra includes only basic concepts and elementary equations such as a + 2 = 5. Students can solve these equations in their heads (by saying three plus two equals five, so a must be three) without really learning the process of solving an algebraic equation, said Spanier.

"They call it an introduction to algebra, but the numbers are so easy (the students) can just use guess and check," he explained.

So far in algebra, the students have encountered lots of new concepts, including solving equations with negatives, with fractions, and with variables on both sides. A few weeks ago, Spanier surveyed the students in his algebra class to get their input on how the class was going, whether they were going too fast, etc., and was pleased to find that they were satisfied with the pacing. Spanier loves teaching the class. "It's the ideal class," he said. "It's heaven for a math teacher to have a class like this."

"These guys," said Spanier of the algebra class, "they see it once and they get it."

The kids have taken to the challenge of learning algebra, asking questions of Spanier in class and during study times. Spanier thinks it's much better to challenge them with new material rather than bore these students with the regular eighth grade math curriculum, which includes a lot of review that they don't need. "They've learned it once and they got it. They don't need another chapter of it, another year of it," he said.

And the other eighth grade classes have benefitted, too, Spanier thinks. "When you take 26 kids off the top, you're taking six of the top math kids out of each class. The others have to step it up," he said.

The other classes, though they struggled at first, have developed new leaders and have had students who have gained confidence and started to participate in class more. "It's as beneficial for the other classes as it is for the algebra students," Spanier added. "I think both have benefited. I don't see any losers in it."

They hoped to find used textbooks for the new algebra class, but could not, so they had to buy another set of new textbooks...the same algebra books as used in the high school.

Having algebra in eighth grade should allow students to have more math in high school. In addition to algebra, the high school offers geometry, trigonometry, and analysis. Ultimately, teaching algrebra to eighth graders could pave the way to offering a college-credit math class to seniors, said Spanier.

Or it should at least encourage students to take geometry, trigonometry, and analysis in high school, since they now will have four years to take these three classes, rather than having to take a math class every year. For example, if students are in band and choir, noted Spanier, the only way they can take all three math courses is if they don't have a study hall their senior year.

This means that next year the eighth graders should be mixed with the current ninth graders in geometry, the next step in the progression of the math curriculum. "I'm hoping these eighth graders will be in there and you won't be able to tell the difference," said Spanier.

Geurts, Hemmesch, Louis, and Cary Schlick, another eighth grader, were unanimous in planning to take geometry next year as ninth graders.

Spanier sees adding algebra in eighth grade as the first step in improving the math curriculum. He thinks some years two classes of algebra could be added. And if some concepts were added to sixth and seventh grade math, maybe eventually all eighth graders could take algebra.

Changing the math curriculum that drastically will have to wait at least until it's the math department's turn in the curriculum cycle again, said Deb Gillman, the district's curriculum coordinator. While the review of the curriculum is coming in the next couple years, the math department's turn to purchase materials - new books, etc. - is three years away.

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