How do you get fourth and fifth graders excited about math? For AmeriCorps member Dan Graham, you start with mechanical pencils and fun-size candy bars.
They’re inexpensive enough that Dan, a full-time tutor who moonlights as a foster care aide and a bartender, can pay for them out of pocket and award them as prizes to the 24 students he tutors at Bowen Elementary through Hope Network’s MathCorps program. That kids are excited about candy makes sense. Mechanical pencils? He may not understand it, Dan says, but, “They love ’em.”
MathCorps is a Heart of West Michigan United Way-funded program to help elementary and middle school students become proficient in math. MathCorps currently operates in two middle schools and five elementary schools in the Kentwood Public Schools district.
“Many AmeriCorps members have to self-sacrifice in order to do this,” says Tom Bobo, AmeriCorps program director for Hope Network. Although full-time members receive health insurance and, if they complete their commitment, a credit toward graduate school, AmeriCorps pay is famously low. “It takes a unique person in the right chapter of life in order to do it successfully.”
After graduating from high school in 2012, Dan enrolled in the meteorology program at Central Michigan University but soon switched to sociology and math. A tattoo of the CMU Chippewas logo decorates his forearm.
“Dan having that background was a big advantage,” Tom says.
Tom brings new AmeriCorps members to Bowen so they can shadow Dan. Watching Dan interact with the kids, Tom says, they can see that “I don’t need to be scared. These kids aren’t going to bite me.”
“Sometimes they might,” Dan says. “Just kidding.”
When we visited Bowen Elementary in mid-March, Dan was working with a pair of students, Patrick and Aaron (we’ve changed their names). In two days, they’d be taking their fourth math assessment of the year, and his goal was to make sure they were ready.
The first challenge is a speed drill. Dan gives each of them a sheet of paper filled with math problems. They have 60 seconds to complete 30 problems. The goal is less about passing and failing, Dan explains, than it is about helping him tailor his instruction going forward.
As the boys begin, Dan shuffles a deck of cards and watches. “I focus very heavily on fact fluency because I think it has a lot of importance in everyday activities,” he says. Two of his students had hit their 30-question goal earlier that week.
When Aaron and Patrick finish, Dan sets their sheets aside to score later and moves onto a card game. He deals two cards to each of them. Whoever can multiply the values on the cards fastest wins. After a few rounds, the boys are smiling. Aaron emerges as the winner and fishes a Snickers bar out of the prize bag.
The next challenge is a story problem. Dan gives each of them a small whiteboard, reads out the problem, and asks Patrick and Aaron to recite the steps they’ll take to solve it.
“Read, paraphrase, visualize, hypothesize, estimate, compute, check,” they say in unison.
“Beautiful, you guys, beautiful.”
The problem has to do with a community garden and how much area will be allotted to each gardener.
“What kind of information does it give us?” Dan asks.
“It’s talking about space,” Patrick answers.
“Right, so how can you draw two garden plots that are 4 by 7?”
Patrick draws the plots and labels their dimensions.
“Now that, I would say, is a perfect visualization,” Dan says. “When we’re looking for the total amount of space, what are we going to do?”
“We’re going to be multiplying,” Patrick says, well on his way to the solution.
Aaron hasn’t quite gotten there yet, but Dan walks him through it, step by step, and before long Aaron figures it out.
The session ends. Before leaving, Patrick and Aaron stop at a colorful bulletin board to pore over the challenge question Dan has posted for the week. The prize for correctly answering it: a mechanical pencil. Both boys write their answers on slips of paper and put them in a pouch on the board and head off to their next class.
Though the job can be difficult, Dan finds satisfaction in seeing his students improve over the course of the year. “Before Christmas, the principal pulled me into one of the fourth-grade teachers’ rooms and she showed me how the students were progressing, and, for the MathCorps students, they were seeing large gains, from 10 to 60 points,” Dan says. “It was awesome to be able to see the difference we were making here in the classroom.”
“Seeing the gap shrink, seeing them being able to comprehend what they’re doing – instilling confidence in them – is huge.”
Pam Punt, Bowen’s AmeriCorps staff liaison, sees how much the students enjoy their sessions with him. “Dan’s great with them. He really shows interest in the kids. If they’re struggling, he’s always willing to help.”
From Pam’s perspective, if Dan wants a future career in education, it’s his to take. In fact, two former AmeriCorps members are already teaching at Bowen.
MathCorps is one of five Youth Education programs supported by Heart of West Michigan United Way’s Community Fund. To learn more, visit our Agency Partners page.