Learning math is a bit like magic, at least if your teacher is Melissa Romano.
Romano, a math teacher at Four Georgians Elementary, has found a way to use card tricks with her students, and in the process has honed cutting-edge techniques for teaching everyone’s favorite subject.
And for her abilities, Romano recently earned a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching from the U.S. government.
The awards are given every year to one math and one science teacher in each state. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the federal government for K-12 in those fields, according the program’s website, and comes with $10,000 cash and a paid trip to Washington D.C.
Romano has been teaching in Helena for seven years. Currently she teaches math to all fourth graders at Four Georgians.
The setup is atypical, she said, but she has come to excel at math as her specialty, albeit unexpectedly.
Math was never a particular interest of hers (she once aspired to be a writer). However, she pointed to points — a teaching conference in Missoula and a magicians’ performance at another — that sparked her passion.
“I became in love with math,” she said. “Math is with us everywhere, whether in a magic trick or going to the grocery store.”
After watching the magician’s card tricks, Romano made it a personal goal to incorporate magic tricks into her lessons, after she learned them, of course.
The tricks are just one piece of her teaching, but one that helps develop students’ analytic skills, she said, and their ability to identify patterns.
Her inclusion of magic with math came on the heels of an earlier “aha!” moment in which Romano said she discovered that students could best further their thinking by utilizing what they already know.
She became more student-centered, Romano said. She started listening to kids more.
“It changed the way I taught, forever,” she said.
The traditional method for teaching math is easy to recall. Students watch the teacher solve a problem, then mimic and practice the technique.
Romano flips the method on its head.
“Here’s a problem,” she tells her students, “I want you to wrestle with it for a few minutes.”
Done well, the “productive struggle” encourages students to persevere and make connections among different problem-solving strategies, she said.
Students also work together or in groups, finding their mistakes and comparing solutions with one another. The instant feedback is often more useful for the students than the teacher’s corrections on homework, she said.
“I really believe I want them to make mistakes,” she said. “The only way we learn is from our mistakes.”
That’s one way Romano watches her students grow — by seeing them become increasingly comfortable raising a hand or correcting each other’s work.
“Nobody’s afraid anymore to make a mistake,” she said.
Her approach — a particular balance of learning concepts and procedures — aligns closely with the newly implemented Common Core standards, which Romano said she is enthusiastic about.
“I live and breathe those standards,” she said.
Romano was also hired this year to be part of a program, through education technology company BetterLesson and the National Education Association, that seeks to make available creative, Common Core-aligned lessons online to teachers around the country.
As one of BetterLesson’s “master teachers,” Romano creates and uploads her lessons to the website almost every day, where they’re free for teachers to access.
The program takes a lot of work — she needs to upload 150 lessons this year, and each must have a video component. Romano said she records video reflections for every lesson in which she is “brutally honest” about what aspects worked and which ones flopped.
It’s a method well-suited to Romano, for whom, like her students, math has been a process of trial, error and growth.
After Romano won the presidential award, her students wrote letters congratulating her. One student wrote that she didn’t used to like math, but said Romano’s tricks helped change her attitude.
“There’s not a math gene,” Romano said. “Wherever you are today, you can always get better. I’m proof of that.”