Sunday, July 17, 2011

Math teacher keeps kids engaged -

Katie Garcia's classroom at Omaha Bryan High School has everything a math teacher needs: desks, posters, a traditional blackboard, a modern digital whiteboard and, of course, a Fisher-Price basketball hoop.

Her teaching style emphasizes activities to get kids physically involved in classroom lessons.

"If I'm bored, then they're going to be bored," Garcia said. "I try as much as I can to do hands-on activities and keep things interesting."

The math department head was recently recognized as one of 22 teachers across Nebraska to receive a Robert Noyce National Science Foundation Master Teaching Fellowship from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The five-year fellowship will provide Garcia a $10,000 annual salary supplement while she continues to teach in Omaha Public Schools, which UNL classifies as a high-need district. She will also be able to take 24 graduate-level credit hours at UNL at no cost.

"It's a way for me to brush up on my own skills and benefit my students and my school and benefit myself at the same time," Garcia said of the fellowship. "It's partly math, it's partly education and it's partly leadership."

Garcia said she likely would pursue a master's degree in curriculum and instruction instead of a doctorate because she plans to stay in the classroom rather than become an administrator.

She said she hopes to bring back what she learns from the program to help other teachers in her department.

"We at Bryan, I think, do a really great job of making sure that we pay it forward," Garcia said. "The things that I learn, I can pass on to the other 10 (math teachers)."

After attending high school in South Sioux City, Garcia started teaching at Bryan 12 years ago right after finishing her bachelor's degree at UNL.

Garcia earned her master's degree in mathematics teaching through a grant. She also did a stint as a curriculum specialist, but realized she was happier as a classroom teacher and department head — where she combats poor attitudes toward math with positive energy and creativity.

"We've always focused on illiteracy, but it's somehow still OK to not like math," Garcia said. "That really bothers me. No one is ever going to say, 'Oh, reading, I don't need that; it's OK if my kid's bad at it.' But somehow it's OK with people if they're bad at math."

Garcia teaches a yearlong algebra course for students who would struggle with a faster-paced curriculum. She also teaches a standard-level geometry class.

Bryan High uses a block schedule, with students taking 90-minute classes.

"Even if you like math, 90 minutes is a long time," Garcia said. "We really focus on incorporating activities and group work and all of those different things to keep kids engaged in class."

Garcia uses activities like review basketball — where students get to shoot a basketball to earn points if they correctly answer a geometry question — to engage students in learning.

"To be a really good teacher," she said, "you have to put in the extra time and effort."

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