Milton teacher wins big by letting the kids talk

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Neil Johnson
Friday, January 10, 2014

MILTON—Milton teacher Cathy Fernan was talking to students in her sixth-grade science class at Northside Intermediate School about the cactus: the resourceful, tough-guy plant of the desert.

“Remember when we talked about the idea of adapt or die?” Fernan said. “You've got to adapt to really dry conditions, or you won't make it.”

The cactus, of course, only survives because it's adapted through time to thrive in arid conditions by quickly absorbing tiny amounts of rain like a sponge. Fernan's students may not have picked up on a larger metaphor, but for 35 minutes on a Friday morning, they became human cactuses.

They slurped up and filled their brains with the details of a learning discourse that in most cases could be, well, desert-dry: earth biomes.

Remember biomes? Tundra, taiga, desert … (snore?) But nobody in Fernan's class was sleepwalking through the lesson Friday.

Call it Fernan's adapt-or-die method. After drilling the hard nuts and bolts of earth biomes all week, Fernan on Friday adapted her approach.

She handed out envelopes filled with dozens of clues on biomes and split her students into groups of two to four. She told the students to spend the rest of the class time matching each clue with its proper earth biome.

It was like an early-childhood education matching game, yet trickier and more sophisticated. For instance, if you can guess what biome has “many plants with red leaves that are adapted to absorb sunlight,” you're as smart as Fernan's students—and probably smarter than the Gazette reporter who joined in the exercise.

Students toggled between their textbooks and classroom iPads, their memories of the week's lessons and their own logic and reasoning skills to adapt their collective knowledge of biomes to the task at hand. It was a conversation with a goal: Get the biomes, and get them right.

The exercise was casual and loud, but it worked. There wasn't a group in the class that didn't get all their clues matched with their best guesses before the bell rang. Next week, they'd see how they fared.

Fernan, a 26-year veteran teacher in Milton, said she's spent a career finding ways to get students to learn by telling them not to shut up.

“I believe that he who converses the most, learns the most,” Fernan said. “It's got to be hands-on, loud, within reason. People work their way through problems by talking and communicating.”

The method, one of a few teaching ideas she's employed as a math and science teacher, helped earn Fernan a coveted award in teaching. Last month, she was one of just two teachers in Wisconsin to earn the Presidential Teaching Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.  

The award, which is considered the highest national honor for math and science teaching, is awarded biennially to grade-school level teachers by the president of the United States.

Fernan was nominated in 2012 by her colleagues at Northside Intermediate School and was recommended as a national finalist by state schools Superintendent Tony Evers.

She and another Wisconsin teacher, Kathy Hiteman of Middleton, were awarded along with just 102 math and science teachers who won the Presidential Teaching Award.    

Fernan has been an instructor at the Yerkes Astrophysics Academy for Young Scientists in Williams Bay, where she has taught astronomy and astrophysics to young students at summer camps.

Dense stuff, but Fernan does not claim to be a math whiz. In fact, she struggled with subject through school.

“I had a nun praying for me, literally,” she said.  

Fernan's secret to drawing students into math and science is to make learning feel like a group conversation where people can literally put their hands on the answers. 

During the last few years, Fernan and a math teaching colleague, retired Milton teacher and school principal Carol Meland, developed a district-wide series of monthly “family math nights.” The math nights were designed to make math less intimidating for students to learn and easier for parents to grasp, too.

Among the exercises on family math nights: Groups of students and parents clustered together to work on a system of tiles that could only be arranged with the proper matching of prime numbers.

The exercise was designed to take a concept that can be abstract for people and make it simpler using discussion and hands-on learning. She said such activities wash away the fear of getting math problems wrong. The right answers suddenly become obvious.

“Part of the problem with math is always all the baggage that comes with it. People are afraid of numbers. Whole families, generations can be intimidated or fearful of math,” Fernan said. “We found out what helps is to help everyone, parents especially, to look at math and numbers in a more visual way.”

In Fernan's classroom, students Jonah Enke and Ryder Radke at first found themselves with a fist full of biome clues and a gut full of anxiety. They were pressing to guess each clue right, to make it fit perfectly.

“Don't worry about getting every one just right. Just talk. Work through it together. That's all you need to do,” Fernan told the pair.

About five minutes later, the two students started to finish each other's thoughts and sentences. The biome clues were falling into place. In fact, Enke informed Radke they were both “biome experts.” The exercise seemed to be working.

“She (Fernan) always has us do stuff like this all the time. Most of what we do is just like this,” Enke said. “I think it's better. It's different.”

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