In this first of four posts highlighting the winners of the HMH Curious Classroom contest and how they inspire curiosity in their classroom every day, HMH sits down with Heather Francis, the first place winner of the contest, to talk about how she inspires out-of-the-box thinking by teaching math concepts through dance.
HMH: What inspired you to become a math teacher?
Heather Francis: My parents always encouraged me to do well in math. It’s a long-standing tradition in my family to become an engineer. While growing up, there were numerous engineering-related discussions at family events and my aunts and uncles would send engineering books to me. I’m incredibly proud of my father, also an engineer, who was responsible for directing the traffic and transportation for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
I was going to follow in my family’s footsteps and go to school to become an engineer until I took a teaching course during my senior year of high school and fell in love with the idea of being able to teach two of my favorite subjects: mathematics and dance. As a teacher I could help create future engineers, while also incorporating my passion for dance.
HMH: Tell us more about Dance Dance Revolution and the Distributive Choreography Project. What inspired you to create these dance activities?
HF: I found that my students were losing interest in class, which sparked my idea to create resources for students that make mathematics more engaging, while still accomplishing key objectives. I wanted to foster curiosity in the classroom by giving my students the opportunity to use their imagination to solve a problem. For example, the rule of rounding is “four or less let them rest, five or more let them soar.” The concepts of resting and rounding are both very danceable terms and I challenged myself to think of ways to bring these words to life, using dance. When resting, you’re not moving, progressing or using energy. But when soaring, you’re explosive, rising, jumping and defying gravity. I incorporated these words and the actions associated with them into both lessons.
I majored in dance in college, and had a minor in mathematics. When I introduced my dance ideas to my college peers, there were crickets. They did not understand how math could be a kinesthetic experience. But since I have had this chance to integrate dance and math, there have been no more crickets – only applause!
HMH: What key concepts do these two dance activities help students to better understand?
HF: Both Dance Dance Revolution and the Distributive Choreography Project help students understand mathematic principles like rounding and distributive property, two necessary skills that are needed to explore rational and irrational numbers. If my students dance at the beginning of class before we even talk about math, students don’t know that they’re utilizing mathematical patterns. When I turn to the lecture following the dance activity, they see how math and dance are related and everyone has a tangible experience to connect with. Because these lessons challenge students to utilize creativity to express an idea, they are less afraid of getting the wrong answer. While each student’s dance routine may look different, they all represent correct mathematical thinking. Beyond math skills, these two dance activities teach students about the importance of teamwork and that when you incorporate activities that require collaboration, you’re creating distributed social cognition so students are absorbing more than they would working independently.
HMH: Your lessons will be among the first featured in the HMH Marketplace. How do you think this will benefit teachers?
HF: If I am able to share a video, slide show and lesson plan about how teachers can kinesthetically involve students in math instruction, perhaps this will inspire them to find other ways to include movement in their pre-existing lesson plans. I hope this also inspires teachers to cast a spotlight on the importance of movement, and how the social cognitive learning element can help students retain information and think outside of the box.
HMH: If you were to give teachers one piece of advice when it comes to sparking curiosity in the classroom, what would it be?
HF: You’re never too old to use your imagination. Encouraging students to think abstractly about a concrete topic can be difficult, but when given the proper framework and constructs, they become very engaged thanks to the opportunity to use their imagination and make their own choices. Winning the HMH Curious Classroom contest is pure validation that what I am doing is innovative, valued and shows the effectiveness of dance and math integration. I’m a strong believer that amazing things happen in the classroom when you add a little creativity and imagination.