“Wu-Hoo!”: Adjusting to the New Freshmen Math Curriculum

Madison Fernandez, ‘17

With a new year comes changes. One such change this year has been the freshman mathematics curriculum, which many students are having trouble adjusting to. This year, the ninth grade classes are based off of Pre-Algebra by Hun-Hsi Wu, a mathematics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  Although intended for elementary and middle school math teachers, BHSEC students are expected to be able to comprehend and apply this text in class. It is built upon the new Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM), reinforcing basic ideas that were taught in previous years and focusing on precise definitions of mathematical terms. Many ninth graders are asking, “Why are we relearning things we already know?”

Wu’s text teaches essentially the same topics as in previous years, but for the math teachers, adopting it required some rewiring of lessons. The curriculum still focuses on the algebra and geometry that help form the mathematical foundation students need as they progress through BHSEC, but it has more geometric-based lessons in the fall term and algebraic lessons in the second half of the year. In previous years, there were low grades at the first midterm and complaints about not having a text to build upon in math classes. “We thought the adoption of a text could provide even more structure and coherence to the course,” explained Dr. Rosenberg, a ninth grade math teacher who played a large role in constructing the new curriculum.

Because it is the first year classes are being based around this reading, students and teachers have had to adjust to the new techniques. Mr. Rubenstein, a freshman math teacher, said, “Teaching something from a new perspective and with new resources requires a new approach in the classroom.  I am still experimenting.  One thing that is nice is I can try out different things and see how they go.” One approach is using the text at home for note-taking or answering problems based off the text.  “One drawback is that I am inexperienced with this approach and so it will take time for me to get better at implementing it.  Students might feel that things aren’t going well because of my inexperience with the curriculum,” he continued.

The freshmen have had mixed feelings about Wu and his text. “The only reason Wu is difficult to work with is because he changes the way we look at things. Instead of a bunch of rules we follow and understand in a minimal concept kind of format, we learn Algebra in a sturdy right-in-front-of-you way, that makes us understand exactly what’s going on,” said Paloma Lopez. The year started off with lessons on fractions, a topic that the majority of freshmen felt was repetitive and unnecessary to learn. Britney Franco said, “It’s sort of disconcerting when my friends in other schools are learning complex subjects and I have to tell them that I’m still discussing fractions and the like.” Some students have difficulties trying to grasp the ideas of using specific geometric procedures for certain operations as opposed to using an algebraic method they are more comfortable with. Others aren’t comfortable having to comprehend a text specifically made for adults who already have a strong understanding of math. Many students found it less daunting, though, when they learned that using Wu’s text was supposed to be a challenge.

Another major problem among freshmen was that they felt the text forced them to memorize specific theorems and proofs in order to succeed. “I find memorizing definitions and theorems just as and if not harder to do than simply memorizing rules that we actually do understand,” expressed Helaina Ferraioli. “I do understand where Wu is coming from, but the way he explains it seems confusing and I don’t always follow what he is trying to express to us,” agreed Gabby Sunderland. Holly Hutchinson added, “I just wonder when I’m going to use his definitions and theorems later in life.”

Although not everyone sees the benefits of the text in the moment, teachers are confident that it will help students in their future math and science classes.  “This book gives another perspective to the traditional rule memorization of middle school mathematics,” said Mr. Rubenstein. He hopes that students can see that they can earn a strong understanding of this material without traditional memorization methods. Mr. Rosenberg has already seen improvement in his classes, saying, “Reading math is like a foreign language. I am already starting to see some students, though, who struggled making sense of it in the beginning starting to get a better feel for it as the semester goes on.” 

With this new math text, students are challenged to analyze their critical thinking skills in subjects beyond literature classes. “Wu really changes the way I look at math,” said Arjuna Bharathan. Adding on, Maggie Linhart shared, “I think a lot of the ninth graders have started to appreciate some of the things Wu says, because his theories and proofs and everything do help gain a more coherent understanding of math.”

With new changes come adjustments for everyone. As Mr. Rubenstein said, “This new curriculum is an experiment.  We are all trying to do our best to implement it as we see fit.  As we continue to experiment we will get better and students will get more out of it.” In the end, the curriculum was tweaked to help better students’ understanding and evaluation of math.

There has been a common theme over the past few years of freshmen difficulties in math, as well as the other classes. It comes along with the transition into BHSEC. Particularly in math, students tend to do poorly at first, but by the end of the semester their grades rise and they end up doing well. The process of learning requires confronting challenges and maturing over time, no matter how long it takes to fully comprehend the material, as demonstrated by this new curriculum based off of Wu’s text.

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