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AAAS-Sponsored Programs Award Graduate Science and Math Degrees to Washington D.C. Teachers

When Lisa Suben went back to school as part of a AAAS-sponsored program to train middle school teachers in mathematics, she recalled being “a little skeptical of the idea that I would become a better teacher by spending time as a student.”

But 2011 proved to be a significant year for Suben as a student and a teacher. The fifth-grade teacher at KIPP D.C.-AIM Academy finished her master’s degree, became head of her school’s math department, and received the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Suben and 26 of her fellow math and science teachers from Washington, D.C., schools are the latest graduates of DC ACTS (DC Advancing Competencies in Technology and Science) and DC FAME (DC Fellows for the Advancement of Mathematics Education). The three-year programs, co-sponsored by AAAS, offer middle school and high school teachers the chance to earn a graduate degree, while preparing them to become educational leaders in their school districts.


Lisa Suben | Photo courtesy of Lisa Suben

Delivering more than just degrees, DC ACTS “responds to the requested needs of the District of Columbia Public Schools and other District of Columbia local education agencies” in shaping the program’s teacher training and curriculum, said Joan Abdullah, AAAS director of the program. Over the past six years, Abdullah has consulted frequently with the public schools’ director of science and received input from administrators and others “to develop something that can meet the needs of our teachers, our principals, and the entire district.”


Fourteen DC ACTS participants and 12 DC FAME Fellows received their master’s degrees last month from George Washington University as the second graduating class for both programs. The degree programs, which are free for successful applicants, are funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, George Washington University, and AAAS.

Florence Fasanelli, who directs the FAME program for AAAS, said “all of the 10 faculty members and the writing coach who have worked with DC FAME Fellows these three years are impressed with their commitment to improving their teaching and the lives of hundreds of children. “

Learning as Students

For each graduate, the programs were a chance to refresh their science and math skills and develop new teaching techniques with the help of their peers. But for many, the programs also provided a unique opportunity for personal reflection and a chance to see the classroom again though a student’s eyes.

Shandra Witherspoon taught third and sixth grade students at Moten Elementary School as she went through the FAME program. Now, as the math intervention teacher for Anne Arundel County schools in Maryland, she wants to use what she learned from FAME about math—and about herself—“to work with African-American students to close the achievement gap.”

“As a child, the message seemed to be ‘Just get through this. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand.’ As a woman, the message I received was that mathematics was not necessary,” Witherspoon wrote in her capstone essay at the conclusion of the program. “And as a black woman, math was not a priority because I would face more important challenges in my life, such as how to overcome racism and sexism. Math was something people like me did not undertake.”

Suben, in her essay, wrote: “I thought it was my job to appreciate the work of famous mathematicians. I never thought that I could actually discover mathematics on my own. As the program progressed, I began to feel like it wasn’t so crazy to think that I was not just a student of mathematics, but a mathematician.”

John Balbach, a George Washington University physics professor who helped teach the capstone class for DC ACTS, was “greatly pleased” by how the program’s teachers became more confident and knowledgeable over the three years of study.


Rowland Webb | Photo by Edward W. Lempinen

“When I started with this group, there was great potential, but so many of the cohort were nervous and uncertain about their ability to do physics or meet the challenges posed by the course,” he recalled. But he soon saw “professionals who were prepared to take on not only their physics curriculum, but also were willing to seek out new challenges.”


Rowland Webb, who teaches sixth grade earth sciences and eighth grade physics at Paul Public Charter School, said he gained “a deeper knowledge of the scientific material” through the ACTS program. “And now I can pass on more detailed information to the students.”

Training as Teachers

Witherspoon’s experiences as a FAME student changed the way she taught, she said, from adding more hands-on activities to building her students’ confidence. “I used to rescue my students from uncomfortable math processes by giving them the answers,” she said, “but now I allow them time to work through the problems.”

Jason Hoeksema, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Oyster Adams Bilingual School, now uses a “backward design” approach in his lesson plans after going through the DC ACTS program. He identifies what he wants students to learn—and how to measure their success—before developing specific activities. His goal is “enduring understandings,” he said, “or what I want students to take away for a lifetime.”


Brian DeCicco | Photo by Edward W. Lempinen

Brian DeCicco “was trying to deliver science knowledge to students” rather than letting them experience it firsthand. After participating in ACTS, the Phelps High School teacher “found out that it’s better for me to be a source of knowledge where students can verify what they’ve discovered on their own.”


Many ACTS and FAME participants emphasized how much they had learned from their fellow teachers in the program, particularly as they worked in groups. “For each class, we had to do a presentation,” said FAME graduate Aude Seigneur, “and it happened often that Fellows would present a lesson or a topic that would inspire me for my classroom.”


Aude Seigneur | Photo courtesy of Aude Seigneur

Seigneur, a sixth-grade teacher at Elsie Whitlow School Community Freedom Public Charter School, said she also included more group activities in her classroom as a result of her FAME experience. “I felt working in groups gave the students the confidence they could achieve together, and it developed their responsibility,” she said. “It allows them to share their ideas with each other, to be more creative because they were not alone, and to learn from each other.”


DeCicco said this type of inquiry-based, hands-on learning can “lead to a lot of anxiety and frustration” among students who have never encountered it before. “I’ve learned how to get to know my students better, so I can figure out a way to implement these lessons for everyone.”

Planning for the Future

Armed with new knowledge and new skills, graduates of the two programs say they are ready to make improvements to math and science teaching in D.C. schools. But they were also realistic about the challenges faced by all teachers.

“My biggest challenge for teaching mathematics in middle school is time. There is always a struggle between adequate time to learn and the need to pass a state-mandated test,” Witherspoon said. “Unfortunately the struggle for time is often lost.”

“I think the greatest challenge in teaching will always be having enough time to develop and improve lessons,” Suben agreed. “And to have time to collaborate with colleagues and learn more.”

Webb said he is competing with many outside distractions as well. “It is challenging to compete against Xbox, Playstation, iPhones, and iPods and get the same engagement from students as these devices do.”

School districts still have a long way to go in measuring quality teaching, which can be a barrier to implementing new ideas in the classroom, Hoeksema said. “As always, effectively pinpointing what good science teaching looks like and how it is implemented is a struggle.”

The 2011 graduates are also determined to continue with their own education as mathematicians and scientists.

“I think I have always believed knowing mathematics was the ability to know something sufficiently to get by with it for the present,” Witherspoon wrote in her capstone essay. “This is ironic because I never thought that for my students. I always expected and wanted more for them. Now I know just getting by is not enough for me either.

“It is a powerful gift that I have unwrapped going through my own struggle. I want that for my students.”

Becky Ham

15 June 2011