Whitehaven High School math teacher Nathan Kirsch recently met with CCC Math faculty members to brainstorm strategies for engaging and equipping Coahoma students for success in developmental and college-level mathematics courses. Mr. Kirsch was the 2020 Milken Educator Award winner, an honor he was chosen for from 40 educators nationwide that included a $25,000 cash prize. The award is considered the “Oscars of teaching,” recognizing United States educators for inspiring students to excellence in education. Kirsch, who was able to elevate students from failing test scores to the 99th percentile on state exams and increased advanced placement exams pass rates by 83%, has been led by a passion to educate.
Kirsch spent the morning developing strategies with Coahoma’s math faculty. One proposed strategy was the use of pass-fail tests to ensure mastery. Many of the challenges faced by instructors in mathematics are shared by instructors in many disciplines. One approach discussed was the importance of storytelling in courses. To maintain interest, classes can use “previously on” and “next time on” moments to ensure students understand how lessons make sense based on what they’ve learned. The story arc of the course in which students are enrolled is essential.
Mrs. Catelin Britt noted, “ I liked how he emphasized focusing on doing YOUR job. Too often, we waste valuable time trying to teach students concepts that should have been taught in previous classes. It is possible to create problems in our courses that avoid those issues, so students can focus on mastery of the topics at hand in YOUR course. A passing grade can be achieved without the prerequisite knowledge, but to earn higher marks, a student must master it as well.” Other topics discussed included using intentional problem selection, overcoming knowledge deficits, and student motivation.
In his talk “Overcoming Student Knowledge and Motivation Deficits,” Kirsch credits his students' success to one simple thing: believing in them and getting them to believe in themselves. “I told my students if they all passed the AP calculus exam that we could probably get the news to come.” When they asked if he believed they could do it, he said that he did. The students who believed succeeded. “Students have an ‘us’ versus them mentality. We have to do things to let them know we’re on their side.” He stressed the importance of making connections with students. “When I ask my students what they take fifth period, they tell me ‘Oh, that’s Ms. X’s class.’ They always tell me the teacher’s name and not the subject because they have made the connection with the teacher.”