A bank was robbed. Fifteen suspects – all middle-school staff members – had their mugshots taken, each holding a dollar bill up to their forehead. Algebra students were notified.
The CSI team was waiting on video surveillance to confirm the perpetrator’s height, and once known, they would be able to quickly and easily identify the culprit using data collected by students.
“The CSI team is calling on you, the mathematics experts, to use your knowledge of scale factor to find the actual heights of each of the subjects,” assigned math teacher Heather Richards.
Over two class periods, eighth-graders used math to figure out the height of each suspect by calculating the true dimensions of a dollar bill, translating it to the photo-sized dollar and relating it to the height of the suspect in each photo. They eventually learned – Richards announced the conclusion made from video surveillance – the robber was 5 feet 10 inches.
From there, they used a slate of clues to pinpoint… dun-dun-dun… English teacher Jacob Deubner as the thief.
The CSI investigation was the brainchild of Richards, who has taught at Kelloggsville Middle School for nine years. She said she wanted to teach scale factor in an interesting way, and crime-scene sleuthing is one of many approaches she uses to engage her students.
Known to jolt young teens’ attention with scavenger hunts, her old-school rap savviness or trivia knowledge of obscura such as how frequently the average human being flatulates in one day (14 times), Richards brings liveliness to teaching, funneling positive energy into every coefficient, quotient and sum. She describes her school day as “hours of endless mathematical fun,” a statement that contains no sarcasm.
With dry erase pen on whiteboard, she demonstrates an alternate way to solve an algebraic equation, her face lighting up with delight. “Isn’t that cool?” she asks, her giddiness growing exponentially.
Richards earned her bachelor’s degree from Grand Valley State University and her master’s from Marygrove College in Detroit. She taught in Belleville Public Schools for three years before being hired in Kelloggsville.
She said she likes to spice up the subject she loves and pass it on to her students. “I like teaching in general. I like being able to influence kids and kind of run the show in here and be a positive role model on top of teaching. I love teaching math. I’ve always been good at math. I have a math brain.”
She also makes sure her students always have access to instruction, through video lessons on her website and YouTube.
Teaching Deep in Simple Ways
Master mathematicians-investigators Pablo Vicario and Matt Zaiger were the first students to name the robber in the CSI activity. They said the activity shed light on the “When are we going to use this question?” often posed in algebra class.
“It was a really fun activity,” Matt said. “We were able to use our clues and math skills to figure out who the robber was.”
The woman behind the activity was not lost to them. “I would say math is my favorite subject… I like Mrs. Richards,” Matt said. “She teaches us ways to make math a lot easier than other ways that make it confusing.”
Added Pablo: “Before, math was an OK subject for me. I did it, I was good at it, but then with Mrs. Richards, it was really fun. She explains it way better. She’s the best teacher.”
Where did that ability come from?
In 10th grade, Richards, a Wyoming native who graduated from Wyoming Rogers High School in 2001, had a math teacher who presented different ways to solve equations through various activities. She showed that traditional algorithms didn’t have to be the automatic go-to. That gave Richards a sense of what kind of math teacher she could be.
“I always try to come up with alternative methods of learning stuff,” she said. “The idea has always been to give students the deeper conceptual-type understanding. Then I show them another way, and another way, and another way.”
Principal Jim Alston said Richards’ love for learning is contagious.
“Her personality is very energetic, very much like that of a middle-school student. They respond well to her and the enthusiasm she brings to her classroom. Her interest is so high for the subject that it rubs off on the students,” he said. “They see her excited about what they are doing for the day and all of a sudden they are excited, and sometimes they don’t even realize it. Her love for math and teaching math is what the students see and appreciate every day.”
To the Final Jeopardy! Round
Pop into Richards’ class and there’s likely to be motion, discussion and students engaged in math. To prepare for a test, Richards recently hosted a Jeopardy!-style game show, with students in groups of four who answered questions that ranged in difficulty to amass points.
“Scientific notation, c’mon!” Richards shouted, as they worked to come up with the right expressions.
“You can’t just sit with a textbook and grasp it,” she said. “They have to be able to experience math.”
Her annual scavenger hunt is another example: The hunt is based on using clues with coordinates on them to find the location of math problems.
“She interacts with us. It makes it easier to comprehend,” said eighth-grader Antonio Valenzuela.
“She’s fun. She teaches well and she makes us understand it and goes over it and over it until we get it,” said Stephane Garcia-Palacios.
Richards is also likely to be stopped in the hallway by a student with a math question, and she’s ready to walk them through it.
Principal Alston said students have a comfort level with Richards that helps them learn.
“On top of her love for math, she builds such good relationships with her students,” he said. “She does this by letting students know who she is as a person. She has a great sense of humor and she uses that to her advantage to reach her students on a more personal level. Herstudents love being in her classroom because they never know what to expect in there. They know that she will hold them responsible for their work, but that she will help them along in any way she can.”
Meanwhile, the Jeopardy! game proceeded, and students jotted down expressions and calculations as fast as possible, throwing up their answers on mini-whiteboards. Somehow, a question about rapper Jay-Z was thrown in. Points racked up and students showed they were ready for the next day’s big test. They knew they could do math.
And it’s a safe bet that if host Alex Trebek ever states: “This teacher was known as the best middle-school math teacher,” Kelloggsville students will answer “Who is Heather Richards?”