Sunday, May 8, 2011

Illinois middle school students learn math using song, sign language

From The News-Gazette in Ill. In the picture, North Ridge eighth-grader Matthew Willaman practices singing and signing a song in math class.

DANVILLE, Ill. -- Some North Ridge Middle School eighth-graders remember singing "Three Blind Mice" and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" in preschool and kindergarten to learn language skills, numbers, colors and shapes.

They also remember being puzzled when teacher Steven Martin told them that they would be singing and signing those children's songs and others in their math class to learn geometry formulas.

"It sounded crazy," Chyann Steele said during class on Wednesday.

"I was a little apprehensive at first," classmate Reniyah Griffin added. "But it's been a fun way to learn math. And it really does help you remember it."

Martin, a second-year teacher at North Ridge, already had been using music in his classroom, mainly by playing soothing songs during tests to calm students and keep them focused and more upbeat tunes during homework time to invigorate them and spark their creativity.

While at a national math teachers conference a few weeks ago, he learned how to use songs and sign language to teach concepts. He decided to apply the activity to lessons on finding the area, perimeter and volume of different shapes, which he started this week.

"Most kids love music," Martin said, adding they can pick up on song lyrics fairly quickly. "When you ask them to sing their favorite song, they can sing it."

But they don't seem to remember math formulas such as "r," which is used to determine the area of a circle quite as easily, he said: "There are a lot of numbers and letters."

So, Martin took "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and replaced the lyrics of with "Area is pi 'r' squared" to help them learn the formula. He changed the lyrics of "Wheels on the Bus" to "Area of a parallelogram is base times height" and so on.

On Monday and Tuesday, Martin taught the class the "new" songs and how to sign them.

"It was pretty easy," Stanford Oglesby said of learning to sign. "I've never used sign language before."

"I think it's cool," D'Angelo Davis added. "We're always taking notes. This is different."

Using song and sign language allows students to process the information three ways, Martin said.

"When they're singing, they're saying the formula and hearing it," he explained. "When they're signing it, they're getting that visual aesthetic. It just reinforces the information and helps them remember it."

On Wednesday, Martin and math coach Ellen Wright took turns leading the class in several songs to prepare students for a quiz during sixth hour. Then Garland Allen took a turn.

After doing a few arm exercises to warm up, Garland signed and sang "Area of a rectangle is length times width, length times width" to the tune of "Frere Jacques."

"Measure up both sides, then you multiply, length times width, length times width," he sang, as his 14 classmates sang and signed along from their seats.

"I like to do sign language, but I didn't know we could use it to learn math," Garland said after giving a perfect performance. "I'm going to use this on my next test. Maybe it will help me get a better grade."

Chyann and Reniyah said they may apply the technique to help them out in their other classes.

"Like learning equations in science," Chyann said, grimacing.