Center for Mathematics Education reaches out to Vincennes

January 8 2007

VINCENNES, Ind. - Thinking outside of the box is an important part of teaching, especially if you want to make learning fun and exciting for your students.

This is exactly what some Indiana State University professors are trying to do for students in the Vincennes Community School Corporation (VCSC) as part of a pilot outreach program in algebra for middle and high school students.

The three professors - Liz Brown, Liz Jones and Marylin Leinenbach - are co-directors of the ISU's Center for Mathematics Education (CME), and they have been working closely with a team of teachers in Vincennes to redefine math education and to bring learning to life for their students. Their pilot program, provided under the auspices of ISU's Project PRE (Partnering to Reform Education), is designed to enable youth who face challenges in learning math to develop higher levels of competence, particularly in algebra.

"These days, teachers of mathematics must be able to reach greater numbers of students and enable them to reach higher standards of performance than ever before," said Leinenbach, an assistant professor of elementary education at ISU and former recipient of the Disney American Teacher Award in Mathematics. "Since we are asking more of both teachers and students, we need to develop strategies to help them meet these new challenges.

"As part of this partnership, we are asking these teachers to make drastic changes, changes that could lead to a revision of the mathematics curriculum in this school corporation."

And drastic changes are just what the teachers and administrators in Vincennes are hoping for.

Clark Middle School is a Title I school with about 45 percent of its students receiving free and reduced lunches and 17 percent receiving special education services. The school has not passed ISTEP, particularly in math, in four of the last five years (in the subcategories of free/reduced lunch and special education).

"We have to zero in on what can we do to help these students make progress," said Tom Nonte, VCSC's executive director of instruction.

And, establishing a partnership with the professors at Indiana State was step one in the process. Nonte and Doug Rose, VCSC superintendent, traveled to ISU last year to hear what professors at ISU's Center for Mathematics Education had in mind.

"We liked what we heard and thought it could help us because our faculty doesn't have the opportunity to sit down with those on the cutting edge of manipulatives," Nonte explained. "We were very interested in having the math faculty at ISU come to us and help us provide the manipulatives through grants. It made us very excited about the future."

Step two of the process, then, was to bring ISU and Vincennes faculty together for a meeting of the minds and some individualized instruction that would adequately prepare them to implement new ideas in their classrooms.

As part of their in-service training sessions with Vincennes teachers, Brown, Jones and Leinenbach used hands-on instructional techniques to teach algebraic concepts. Teachers were instructed in the use of Borenson's "Hands-on Equations," which uses a balance, number blocks and pawns to provide a visual representation of algebraic concepts. They were taught how to use two-color chips to add and subtract integers, and they played games that dealt with solving equations and order of operations. In addition, they learned about Bungee Barbie, an activity that teaches linear equations and the art of making predictions. As part of this activity, teachers tried to determine how many rubber bands tied together would safely bungee Barbie from the top of the school's stairwell.

"We're showing them some hands-on activities that they can use with their students with an eye for really helping them modify the whole curriculum and what they're doing in their classrooms," said Liz Brown, an associate professor in the department of math and computer science at ISU. "We'd like to continue coming back and helping support them in their efforts to change their math teaching."

And the teachers appreciate the fresh approach and the wealth of new ideas.

"We have a lot of students who are concrete, visual learners," said Jan Witteried, a teacher at Clark. "At the 7th grade math level, some of the more mature students or advanced students are just finally starting to grasp the abstract ideas. I think that a lot of manipulatives and things they can do hands-on helps decrease the math anxiety that a lot of students feel because it's more like playing a game. It's more enjoyable. And they can actually see with their own eyes and touch with their own hands the results, rather than having to do it all in their heads.

"It's inspirational for us as teachers to learn new things and to see what else is out there besides what we have in our classrooms. So, I'm excited about that."

Although these hands-on approaches are designed to reach average students who face challenges in math, they also are being developed with an eye toward using them in special education settings and in classrooms with high achieving students.

"I think this will get the students more engaged in the classroom," Brown explained. "Rather than sitting passively and learning, they are active, they're more involved, and that makes a big difference in their enjoyment of it. Our long-term goal is to make math class a better experience for all students, not just the ones who have been traditionally good at math but for every student, so they can do it at whatever level they're capable of."

And, after all is said and done, all involved hope that increased student outcomes will be the eventual reward.

"I think we've probably been doing for the past 10 years what we've been doing for the past 10 years, and it hasn't worked," Nonte said. "I think our ISTEP scores and Core 40 scores tell us that. So, it's time to do something different, and it's just wonderful now that we have this partnership with Indiana State University."

And, if all goes according to plan, this partnership will not simply be a flash in the pan. The ISU professors envision a continuing collaboration with VCSC on a future Indiana Department of Education grant that would expand the program and support the teachers in their determination to make lasting changes in the ways in which they teach math. In addition, they would like to explore the possibility of the middle school and high school in Vincennes becoming part of the university's 15-year-old, nationally recognized Professional Development Schools (PDS) program. The PDS program, which currently encompasses five area school districts and 20 public schools, brings students, teachers, and administrators together to enhance education and training at all levels.

Lastly, work is in progress to pursue grants that would enable these professors to expand the SMART (Student Math AfteR-school Thinking) Program, which kicked off in 2005, to include middle and high school curriculum, and to eventually deliver that to Vincennes. Developed by the Center for Mathematics Education as a free outreach service, SMART strives to find new and exciting ways teach math concepts through the use of art, music and literature.

"I think this partnership will grow because I think as long as ISU is willing to stay involved with this initiative, it will move from algebra and the use of manipulatives to other areas of math, and I think it will only grow stronger," said Bill Schad, educational consultant for Vincennes Community Schools and former superintendent of Clay Community Schools. "I think the partnership is a very positive thing for both ISU and Clark Middle School."


Barry Clegg, a 6th grade math teacher at Clark Middle School, uses a balance, number blocks and pawns to provide a visual representation of algebraic concepts and equations.

Casey Butler, a special education teacher at Clark Middle School, works with colleague Jan Witteried (seated), 7th grade math teacher at Clark, to estimate how many rubber bands it will take to safely bungie Ken without injuring him in flight.


CONTACTS: Elizabeth Brown, assistant professor of math and computer science, at (812) 237-3423 or; Elizabeth Jones, assistant professor of math and computer science, (812) 237-2137 or; or Marylin Leinenbach, assistant professor of elementary education, department of elementary, early and special education, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2847 or

WRITER: Maria Greninger, associate director, Communications & Marketing, Indiana State University, (812) 237-4357 or 237-7972 or

Bookmark and Share

Story Highlights

Thinking outside of the box is an important part of teaching, especially if you want to make learning fun. This is exactly what professors with Indiana State University's Center for Mathematics Education (Marylin Leinenbach, Elizabeth Brown and Elizabeth Jones) are trying to do for students in the Vincennes Community School Corporation (VCSC). Their effort is part of a pilot outreach program in algebra for middle and high school students.

Bookmark and Share