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Illustrated approach
by Garrett Valenzuela
Mar 13, 2013 | 6166 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- Holly Young, a math teacher at Mendive Middle School, displays her book "The Underachievers" Wednesday inside her classroom. Young's book has helped elementary and middle school students understand fractions through its vibrant illustrations.
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- Holly Young, a math teacher at Mendive Middle School, displays her book "The Underachievers" Wednesday inside her classroom. Young's book has helped elementary and middle school students understand fractions through its vibrant illustrations.
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SPARKS — As a long-time math teacher in multiple levels of education, Holly Young understands that math is difficult. She has seen the fear in students’ eyes when the daunting number problems hit their desks and a look of defeat is the only surfacing emotion.

However, Young believes “every child can be a mathematician.” She says the hinderance lies in math's accessibility.

“It seems like math has always been reserved for the elite,” Young said Wednesday from her classroom at Mendive Middle School. “If you know math, you are part of this secret society and secret world. I just don’t agree with that. I just think it has been taught poorly. It is kind of a misunderstood area.

“I love making it accessible to kids. That is what I think is very important because people are always saying ‘I was never good at math,’ but it is not genetic. I think that every child can be a mathematician, I just think it takes someone to make it accessible to them.”

Young currently teaches students in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Program at Mendive and she has spent a few years restructuring her approach to mathematics for her students. The change comes as a result of heavy research delving into why high school math students were unable to perform well on the proficiency exam.

“The hard part with this is that students in Algebra who are going to struggle in high school math, they struggle because they don’t do fractions,” she said. “They have no number sense and it is all about ratio and proportion and they have none of that, and they usually fail the proficiency exam. So we would have all these students who are decent math students but they couldn’t pass the proficiency exam. That was what concerned me and I started to research what was hurting kids and the answer was always fractions.”

Young’s solution came during a car ride conversation with her son and his friend that was abruptly halted when one child pulled out a hand-held game. All eyes were peering over one shoulder down to the screen and no longer was the conversation about Easter bunnies — one of Young’s favorite holidays.

“I wanted to do something that would help kids understand fractions a little better because there is really nothing out there except for a few problems and algorithms,” Young said. “One of the things I love to do is take a children’s book that seems totally unrelated to math and read it and say ‘look at all this math in here.’ And the students love it.”

Thus, her book “The Underachievers” was born and became an aid to teachers of elementary and middle school students struggling to understand fractions. Woven through the numerous math lessons is the story of four bunnies completing a journey to become Easter bunnies only to find they have been underachieving and are meant for higher purpose.  

“How I attack fractions now is completely different than how I would have before doing all the research for the book,” Young said. “I used to attack it as ‘here is the algorithm and let’s practice it a lot.’ Instead, I do a lot more connection and number sense and have students develop them a little more.”

Young’s methods challenge students to combine writing and math for full comprehension and the book allows teachers to read through a chapter, complete a lesson and pick it back up without any loss of story. Young said her GATE students are too advanced for the book, but she makes it a point to visit local elementary schools to give lessons to students.

“The Underachievers” was written, edited, illustrated and published completely by local friends of Young and is printed upon online order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords, allowing teachers to use it actively and electronically in the classroom. The book, in conjunction with Young’s dedication to her students, helped her earn the Excellence in Education Award at the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday.

“Everyone has the opportunity to read and read what they want, and I think the same thing is true in math,” Young said. “We have been very elite in saying there is only one path and one way to do it, but math has so many areas to it.

"That is really why I love teaching math because I love finding an area that makes kids fascinated and makes them interested in it. Whether it is having them not be afraid of it for the first time, which is huge and sometimes the only hump to get over, or it is finding an area where they like to specialize. There is so much potential, they just need access to it and that’s what I try to bring to them.”
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