RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The current class of ninth-graders in Maryland will be the first to have to pass an algebra test to graduate from high school. To help, Baltimore County's school system is bringing parents into the classroom to teach them how to teach their kids. NPR's Allison Keyes sat in on one of these algebra awareness classes.
Ms. NINA RIGGS(ph) (Instructor): Yes, that's exactly right, yes. Tell me what you did.
ALLISON KEYES reporting:
In a pale yellow classroom at Overly High School in Baltimore, about 15 parents squeezed behind the desk and squinted at the display on the overhead projector. The instructor, Nina Riggs, was teaching them to use a series of brightly colored plastic tiles to illustrate algebraic equations to make them easier to understand and explain to confused students.
Ms. RIGGS: So I can take the equation, X plus 60 plus 2, and I can use my tiles to represent this equation.
KEYES: There are nods of comprehension from some in the class, but many others have furrowed brows and an anxious expression. Mike Manick(ph) of Rosedale flunked algebra 20 years ago.
Mr. MIKE MANICK (Parent): No, I'm not good at math.
KEYES: But he says he's trying to get a grasp of it now because his 12-year-old son, Billy, needs help with his homework.
Mr. MANICK: He would open his book and it would be, like, `Dad, I need help,' and I'm, like, looking at it, like, `You're not gonna get it from me.' So when his math teacher said, `You might want to go to this program,' I signed up for it and came along and it's helped me a lot so far.
Ms. DEBBIE BLUNT(ph) (Parent): I hated it, too.
KEYES: Debbie Blunt felt the same about algebra in school as many people do but says she learned it because she had no other choice. Blunt says her 14-year-old freshman, Daniel, is a math whiz. She doesn't think her son will have a problem with the algebra test he must pass to graduate.
Ms. BLUNT: It's more for him to see that there is an interest on my part for what he's doing in school and the fact that, you know, he does have these tests coming up and studying doesn't hurt anyone, including his mom.
KEYES: Baltimore County schools decided to offer the algebra awareness class in three two-hour sessions after discussing the new graduation requirements at a PTA council meeting last year. In addition to algebra, the class of 2009 must also pass tests in English, biology and government to graduate. The math classes for parents are designed to teach basic algebraic concepts in the same way students learn them without freaking out those who threw up their hands when they were in school.
Ms. RIGGS: Those who ran screaming, we want to show them that it's not so bad.
KEYES: Besides, says teacher Nina Riggs, this algebra class is more flexible than the way many adults learned the subject when they were in school. Teachers then didn't use red and yellow tiles to help students visualize the equations.
Ms. RIGGS: The revised curriculum is--really shows them the algebra that they learned in a lot of different context than a lot of applications and so they realize that they can do this math.
Ms. SHAWNEE SMITH(ph) (Parent): That's what she's teaching us.
NATALIE SMITH(ph) (Shawnee's Daughter): The hard way?
KEYES: Shawnee Smith and her 14-year-old daughter, Natalie, came to class together with the teen insisting that she's better at math than her mom. The elder Smith concedes the point.
Ms. SMITH: Right now, she probably is.
KEYES: Natalie is a freshman at Baltimore's Loch Raven High and says she's not worried about the algebra test. That's because she gets math the old-fashioned way without the help of those little tiles.
SMITH: I'm a quick learner, just write it out and show me and then I have it.
KEYES: But her mom, who teaches at a private middle school near Johns Hopkins, not so much.
Ms. SMITH: They offered it to any parent that has a child taking algebra. So I said, `Well, I'm gonna go because it's been a long time since I took algebra, right?' I'm teaching sixth-, seventh- and eight-graders math, so you should see me opening up that book. So I'm feeling kind of lost but I thought this would help boost my confidence, you know, and then I'd know what Natalie was doing.
KEYES: The classes have gotten such good reviews from parents with the same goals as Shawnee Smith that Baltimore County's Board of Education is considering offering them again next semester. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: And you can tackle some basic algebra problems at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Don't know much about algebra, don't know what a slide rule is for. But I do know one and one is two, and if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this would be. Now I don't claim to be an A student...
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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