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Teacher in the Running for Top Math Award

Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series on the difficulties many students have with math, and what methods some schools and teachers are using with success.

In his Advanced Placement statistics class, teacher Luke Wilcox is known to pass out Skittles and put students to the challenge: find out if the number of each color per pack is the amount the company once claimed on its Web site. The students figure out the statistics of red, green, yellow and orange candies and form a conclusion.

Wilcox, who is starting his 14th year at East Kentwood High School, makes analyzing data fun. There are so many ways students can apply percentages to their lives, he said: “In statistics, it’s very natural. I don’t have to try real hard to find examples.”

His approach to getting students to understand the concepts seems to be working. In Wilcox’s class last school year, 98 percent of his students passed the AP exam. In 2012, 100 percent passed. The national average of students passing AP exams in a class is 54 percent.

Wilcox was recently named as a finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The award is the highest recognition a K-12 teacher can receive for outstanding science or mathematics teaching in the United States. Established by Congress in 1983, the program authorizes the president to bestow up to 108 awards each year.

Recipients of the award receive a certificate signed by the president, a paid trip for two to Washington, D.C., to attend a series of recognition events and professional development opportunities, and a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation.

Teaching More than Just Numbers

When talking about Wilcox, students and teachers refer to him as talented, inspiring, charming and “a life coach.” Former Kentwood Superintendent Scott Palczewski noticed those qualities and nominated Wilcox for theaward. Palczewski’s daughter, Emily, was in Wilcox’s precalculus class. She went on to ace her college calculus classes at Michigan State University.

“Luke is a teacher leader who is focused on the success of all students,”  Palczewski said. “While Luke ‘s AP students have performed extraordinarily on the exam, he has also sought creative ways to engage those students who find math difficult.”

Palczewski said Wilcox is known to come up with motivational slogans before AP exams, meet students for breakfast, attend their music and athletic events. Students know “he is genuinely interested in their personal success, and not just in the math classroom.”

“Luke is one of those truly gifted educators who make everyone around them better,” he added. “He is a difference maker in the lives of his students. There is no greater compliment for an educator.”

Wilcox has spent his entire career at East Kentwood, teaching everything from Algebra 1 to geometry to pre calculus. The University of Michigan graduate received his master’s degree from Grand Valley State University.

He said he’s always used a real-world, project-based approach, but sees new emphasis on that with the Common Core, national standards that involve more inquiry-based learning.

“The Common Core has reinvigorated me about the idea and pushed me forward,” he said, noting its focus on more student-centered learning, less memorizing and thinking through problems.

Besides AP statistics, he serves as an academic support coach for teachers and is the math department chair. “I definitely have the goal of being an influential leader that makes positive change in the school.”

Changing their Perspectives

Wilcox gets such high marks from staff and  students because he teaches why the steps in solving a complicated math problem are needed, said Zaineb Shatawi, a 2013 graduate and Grand Valley State University sophomore.

“It was never about learning the routine, but developing a true understanding of how things work,” Shatawi said. She explained Wilcox would assign a multi-step statistics problem, and after the whole class went through it would say, “But guess what? There’s an easier way to do this problem!”

“He wanted to make sure we knew how the shortcuts got us to the answers before we were allowed to use them. This helped us a lot when we encountered unique problems because we knew the basis of everything. It helped us so much.”

For Abbie Spica, a 2014 graduate now attending Saint Mary’s College, Wilcox helped change her whole attitude — not just toward math but life in general. Before his class, she hated math.

“He taught me in a way that I could understand, even if that meant coming after or before class to devote individual attention to me to ensure that I succeeded in his class,” Spica said. “This taught me a valuable lesson about attention. I realized that I must be attentive to every aspect of my life.

“From positive and negative signs on my math problems to making sure I am organized, Mr. Wilcox made sure that I would learn how to pay attention to detail,” she added. “This skill has greatly prepared me for college; now I feel able and ready to conquer a heavy class load while staying focused and organized.

“Mr. Wilcox is a phenomenal math teacher and even more amazing life coach.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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