Thinking Differently About Numbers

Numeracy and coding classes offer middle schoolers new approach to math
Douglas Milano, a math teacher at the East Hampton Middle School, lectured to his numeracy class on Monday morning. Morgan McGivern

    Early Monday morning, before the weekend had entirely worn off, 14 students filed into Douglas Milano’s numeracy class at East Hampton Middle School.

    Mr. Milano circulated through the room, placing a white sheet of paper face down on each student’s desk.

    “When I give you the signal, you’re going to flip it over,” said Mr. Milano. “Without speaking to one another, you’re going to line up in front of the room, in order from least to greatest. Without speaking.”

    Slight rumblings began filling the room.

    “I do want to mention again that you’re not allowed to speak,” said Mr. Milano, clad in shirt and tie, with a smile.

    Students quickly rose from their desks. With little disagreement, they soon assembled into a number line, in order from lowest to highest — in this case, -20 to the square root of 16.

    “Whether in real life or in math class, number lines are useful. We use them to balance our bank accounts. We use them to measure when we’re cooking,” said Mr. Milano, 29, who also teaches math.

    Numeracy debuted at East Hampton Middle School in September. It’s largely the brainchild of Charles Soriano, the building’s principal. In the absence of either a longer school day or school year, Mr. Soriano is attempting to increase contact time in core subject areas like literacy and math. For seventh and eighth-grade students, numeracy meets every other day and helps enhance mathematical reasoning, whether through problem solving, critical thinking, number sense, or their real-world application.

    “You need to start young with these skills. It makes kids inquisitive,” said Dr. Soriano, who was inspired to create the class after reading “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences.” “There are mathematical demands in real life. You can no longer say, ‘Oh, I’m not a math person.’ Going forward, everyone needs to be. It’s about learning to think differently.”

    In addition to numeracy, Jonathan Mautschke teaches two sections of coding. Taken together, the classes represent a new direction for some students on the South Fork — one of increased emphasis on quantitative, rather than qualitative, skills.

    So far, the approach is gaining wide support throughout the district.

    “We know that’s where the jobs are. We’re very clear about that,” said Richard Burns, the superintendent. “Any way we can help promote that skill development, we’re all for it.”

    “I’m so happy that we’re doing it,” said Richard Wilson, a school board member and retired science teacher. He frequently emphasizes the need for increased science and technology skills. “And hopefully, in the coming years, the program will expand.”

    Besides using Google Chromebooks, other East Hampton teachers are also experimenting with using a flipped classroom approach — or having students watch pre-taped lectures during the afternoon and evening hours, while saving valuable in-class time for hands-on activities, labs, and discussions.

    Robert Tymann, the assistant superintendent, said there is also a discussion underway at East Hampton High School about students using personal devices, such as smartphones, during school hours. “There’s a logic that this is how students communicate. What they’re doing is pulling back on the archaic rules of not letting students have these devices in school,” said Mr. Tymann. “We have to use it to our advantage, not penalize kids for having them.”

    Nick Finazzo, who teaches numeracy along with Mr. Milano, strives whenever possible to make the coursework relate to real life. Recently, his students worked on a project to replace the flooring in their bedrooms. First, they tabulated the square footage. Next, they went online to compare different types of floors, weighing aesthetics with durability. Finally, students wrote persuasive letters to their parents, attempting to convince them of their findings.

    “There’s a deeper understanding and application,” said Mr. Finazzo, 32, who also teaches algebra. “We have the time to break things down, delving deeper into vocabulary and breaking down concepts we don’t necessarily have time to tackle during math class.”

    Later in the afternoon on Monday, a group of seventh and eighth-grade students huddled in the school’s computer lab, each working in front of a personal computer. This is the third year that Mr. Mautschke, 34, is offering the coding class, though it originally began as a computer skills elective. He also teaches science.

    “Just because they can text doesn’t mean they are tech savvy,” said Mr. Mautschke, who has seen students have trouble attaching a file to an e-mail.

    During coding class, the 25 students, an equal mixture of boys and girls, sat working to create individual games in Scratch, a free, Web-based program that uses pre-made blocks of code in user-friendly, multicolored templates.

    Leah Maffucci, a 12-year-old seventh grader, was creating a maze, with a muffin as the main character. “I like to create things and put things together and see what happens — it’s kind of like chemistry,” she said. When she grows up, she said she wants to do “something with science.”

    Charlotte Kane, also 12 and in the seventh grade, said most of the coding wasn’t difficult to learn. “Some of it can be difficult, but once you learn it, you get it pretty quickly.”

    Students flitted about the room, coming to each other’s rescue whenever someone got stuck.

    “Don’t over-program it,” urged Mr. Mautschke, to no one in particular. “There’s a beauty in the simplicity, something elegant about it.”

    “It’s fun and it let’s you be creative,” said Anthony Genovesi, 12. His game took place at a concert and revolved around the main character not spilling his drink. About a year ago, the seventh grader started teaching himself coding during his free time. “You have an idea and in an E.L.A. class you can write about it but in coding you can turn it into this fully-functional thing you can mold and create.”

    Some days, Mr. Mautschke struggles to keep up with his students, who are eager to learn faster and more economical ways of doing things.

    “Even if they don’t want to grow up and become a computer programmer, this is something fun for them to learn and allows them to be creative,” said Mr. Mautschke. In future quarters, the class will tackle Java programming, HTML, and 3D game development. “And the whole time, they’re unknowingly applying math and logic to it,” he said.