Engaging students with chemistry sometimes means swapping beakers for spatulas. Math for America (MƒA) Master Teachers Hayeon Rachel Jun and Laryssa Kramarchuk blend science and the culinary arts in their classrooms. Lessons have students hand-churning ice cream, growing rock candy and quantifying the hotness of peppers, all while studying the underlying scientific properties of these materials.
Jun and Kramarchuk shared these experiences with fellow math and science teachers last July at a three-day MƒA conference called “Summer Think.” Their session, “Kitchen Chemistry,” was one of many opportunities at the MƒA Summer Think for teachers to collaborate and share their ideas on how to engage students with mathematics and the sciences.
This inaugural summer series at MƒA’s New York City headquarters continued the organization’s mission of supporting outstanding teachers, which it does by fostering collaboration, offering professional growth opportunities and providing financial support to teachers. Importantly, all the sessions at Summer Think are led by and for teachers.
Jun and Kramarchuk demonstrated one of their chemistry lessons about phase transitions and crystallization. Attendees shook plastic baggies of salt, ice, sugar and cream, periodically pausing to measure the temperature of their solidifying ice cream mixes. Whereas pure water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the addition of salt and sugar lowers the mixture’s freezing point by a few degrees, as the salt and sugar molecules get in the way of water molecules joining to crystallize.
That session, and many others like it during the meeting, inspired Summer Think participants to try new approaches themselves. Jun and Kramarchuk “were so honest about their experience and how it had gone, including the things that didn’t go well,” says fellow MƒA Master Teacher Courtney Ginsberg, who teaches high school mathematics at Humanities Preparatory Academy. “The session made me feel more comfortable to do something seemingly crazy like that in my classroom, where it could be a mess of kids throwing ice cream around.”
The 2017 Summer Think was MƒA’s first summer conference. “You can feel the difference in a room full of teachers when it’s summer,” says Courtney Allison, deputy executive director for MƒA. “Everyone was a lot more relaxed and casual. Teachers repeatedly tell us how much they love when we do things outside of the normal school year because they have time to think. You’re not in the thick of things.”
John Ewing, president of MƒA, says the organization is no stranger to doing things differently. “MƒA was begun with a revolutionary idea — that the best way to improve teaching is to focus first on the most accomplished teachers. Excellence is best built on excellence.”
MƒA’s goals are to keep the most accomplished math and science teachers in the classroom, foster teacher-to-teacher professional growth, provide teachers with opportunities for leadership, and influence and build a professional community of accomplished teachers to collaborate and learn from one another. MƒA now supports more than 1,000 math and science teachers in New York City who are making a lasting impact on their students, schools and communities. Overall, the organization works to inspire, support and share new ideas that shape policy, practice and the retention of excellent teachers in mathematics and science across New York City’s 1,700 public schools and beyond.
MƒA awards renewable four-year fellowships, which include a stipend and frequent opportunities for teachers to connect with one another. The organization also offers extensive professional learning and growth opportunities, such as courses, workshops and seminars, throughout the school year.
“We provided the structural support, but the teachers came up with the conference ideas and all of the programming.”
The original spark that led to Summer Think was anything but straightforward. It came from MƒA Master Teacher Brian Palacios, a high school math teacher at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. Palacios received a grant from MƒA to attend a summer meeting of teachers who collaborate on Twitter. In his written reflection on that meeting, he proposed that MƒA host a summer conference. MƒA staff jumped on the idea and recommended that Palacios spearhead the planning, with their support. “It was just a crazy idea,” he says. “I didn’t have the slightest clue how to plan a conference. I didn’t even know how to start.”
After sending out feelers for other MƒA teachers interested in helping plan the as-yet-unnamed conference, things remained uncertain for a time, Allison says. “We wondered if a large enough group would be interested in a summer event. Twenty teachers showed up for the first planning meeting, which was too many to plan a conference, so they got some ideas and made a smaller planning committee.”
Leah Hirsch, a program officer at MƒA, shepherded the teachers through the uncertainties of the process. “We provided the structural support, but the teachers came up with the conference ideas and all of the programming.”
This type of support is what MƒA does — and it means a lot — says Ginsberg, who also served on the planning committee. “MƒA had trust in us as teachers to put together and fund this conference,” she says. “It feels good to be part of a community where they trust us and believe that we have the best intentions at heart, which is not something we all get in our school communities.”
With MƒA’s help, the planning team gathered proposals for sessions. “We got a bunch of proposals, and so we made our own rubric and graded them,” says MƒA Master Teacher Diana Lennon, an environmental science teacher at Columbia Secondary School, who also served on the planning committee. “We were looking for proposals that were outside of the things we could do during the time we have during the school year — and something that would bridge the divide between science and math teachers.”
Summer Think sessions included a ‘deep dive’ into how to incorporate climate change justice into lesson plans by combining statistics and climate science. Led by MƒA Master Teacher Peter Mulroy, the session explored analyzing demographic and climate datasets to uncover links between poverty, race and future climate impacts. “It was nice to go beyond just scatter plots related to climate justice,” Ginsberg says. Teachers who attended the session are still swapping materials and ideas online, she says.
Other sessions went beyond curricula. “Facilitation as Leadership” discussed how teachers can embrace their role as leaders to ensure equity and access for all students. Attendees assembled a toolkit of ways to manage group dynamics and give students a voice. The session helped build strong connections among teachers, Lennon says.
“We had to let our guard down,” she says. “At MƒA, I feel like I can do that. At the Summer Think, we shared one of the things we’d like to improve about our teaching or that we didn’t think was going well. It’s hard as a teacher to put yourself out there and say, ‘I don’t think I do this well.’”
Facing uncertainties and trying new things as a community were common themes throughout the conference, from the session topics to the meeting’s very planning. And they’ll be central themes for the 2018 Summer Think, too. “There were a lot of people trying things for the first time at this conference,” says Ginsberg. “It’s important for teachers to step into that role, because that’s what we’re always asking our students to do.”