October 15, 2010

‘Mathster’ motivates Parker school students

Elementary school teacher uses technology and everyday examples to make math interesting

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Parker Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Tom Vakkas uses an interactive white screen to explain a math problem in his classroom.

Parker Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Tom Vakkas uses an interactive white screen to explain a math problem in his classroom.

Tom Vakkas teaches fourth grade at Parker Elementary School but he spends much of his time thinking about math.

Specifically, the 13-year veteran teacher stays up at night, after his children are in bed, and makes videos and lessons designed to make the school’s students excited about math.

Vakkas gave a half-hour presentation to the city Board of Education earlier this week, showing math problems he has used to challenge Parker School students’ creativity.

Twice a week, in the school’s daily morning assembly, “Mathster Vakkas,” as he calls himself, shows students why math can be fun and useful in their lives. He shows both his own videos and some created by students, offering a math challenge.

“I try to engage students to think mathematically, using real-life examples,” he said.

One video asks students how many times his neighbor’s malamute dog, Kody Bear, is fed in five days if he is fed two scoops of dog chow in the morning and two at night. The short film shows Vakkas feeding the dog while his neighbor is out of town.

Another film examines a soccer ball’s design, noting black five-sided panels and white six-sided panels on the ball, asking students what such shapes are called in math. The answer: pentagon and hexagon.

A film by Cooper Swartwout, made last year when he was a fourth-grader in Vakkas’ class, showed him feeding his dog, Crosby, four treats per day, asking how many treats that would equal for October’s 31 days. The boy then demonstrates three ways of solving the problem.

“I’d made films, but not to show in front of other people,” Swartwout said this morning. “I just had to come up with the idea. Mr. Vakkas tries to make different ways to learn math. Some kids like the traditional way, some kids like different ways.”

Another student, challenged to divide 650 by 50, solved the problem by counting by 50s to reach 650.

One boy wrote a problem for his fellow students that said his stepmother rented eight sets of DVDs one weekend to view a TV series. Each set had three DVDs and each DVD has six episodes on it.

“That boy was not interested one bit in math until he came up with that problem,” Vakkas said.

“I liked math but I’m getting better at it since being in Mr. Vakkas’ class,” said fourth-grader Lindsey Smith. “His movies are really fun. When I was in first and second grade, I would see them (in morning assembly) and get excited. He usually doesn’t show them at random. If we’re studying rounding (of numbers), he’ll show something about rounding. He probably has 150 films.”

Vakkas showed the board a group of students who looked at the school’s playground to find examples of parallel lines and other kinds of mathematical designs, in the railings and parts of the play elements.

Vakkas showed the “drop one” method, where a student was stumped on how to subtract 47 from 100, so Vakkas told him to drop one and make the total 99, subtract 47 from 99, then add one to that number.

Vakkas said he has been mentored by SUNY Cortland childhood education professor Susanna Davidenko. Many of his ideas have come from her and from studies he has found, of how to make math lessons come alive for children.

The two worked together through the Professional Development School formed by the city school district and the college two years ago.

“Tom has changed the culture around math at our school,” said Parker Principal Kevin Yard in introducing Vakkas at the board meeting.

Vakkas’ enthusiasm and examples at the meeting caused board members and audience members to give him a standing ovation. Board President Bill Young thanked him for “going the extra mile” as a teacher.

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