Peercasting: Students Produce Math Support at NC Middle School

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If there's one thing that teachers know how to do, it's create engaging learning environments with limited resources. Take Nancy Trollinger, an eighth- and ninth-grade math teacher who recently came upon an excellent way for struggling learners to pick up complex algebraic concepts: peer tutoring ... with a little technological twist.

By throwing technology into the mix, this teacher at West McDowell Junior High School in Marion, NC, has created a successful program that finds advanced students producing podcasts that explain those concepts for other students.

Financing for the initiative came from three different sources. Rutherford Electric Membership awarded $750 for the purchase of hardware. In 2008, REM awarded 23 grants, totaling $18,101, to area teachers for special projects designed to enhance learning in their classrooms. The funds go to public school teachers serving grades K-12, with awards of up to $1,200 being offered for projects in any discipline.

Other donors included The North Carolina Council of Math Teachers, which awarded an additional grant of $800 to support the program, titled "Each One Teaches," and the school system, which purchased the MacBook.

Through the program, Trollinger teaches ninth-grade Algebra I, as well as AP Algebra I, for eighth-graders. When her AP students demonstrate mastery of the material, they produce tutorial podcasts explaining the operation. The podcasts are then accessed during school hours from the students' desks via Apple iPod Touch machines, which were purchased with the grant money.

An educator since 1973, Trollinger said the podcasts are a far cry from the "slide rule" that she remembers from her own college years. "There's a museum of natural history here, where my identical slide rule is on display as an antique," quipped Trollinger, who remembered feeling like she had "really arrived" when she purchased a four-function Texas Instruments calculator. "Boy, things have come a long way since then."

Soon, a number of Trollinger's students will spend part of their school day creating iPod-based tutorials for their peers, thus freeing up those tutors' time and also making the learning environment more comfortable for the struggling students. "Kids deal with a lot of self-esteem issues in junior high school to begin with," said Trollinger. "To me, sitting somewhere on your own, watching an iPod tutorial, is much better than sitting with an AP student who is trying to explain concepts to you."

Right now, for example, Trollinger said her eighth-grade class is just finishing up lessons on linear equations. After identifying which students need additional help in that area, she said she'll pair those children up with tutors and help plan out the podcasts. "We have them develop a detailed plan of what the podcast will look like," said Trollinger. "Then the tech facilitator and I will select the three best plans, and have the students create the podcasts in about 15 minutes in the computer lab."

The students develop their own presentation, scripting, and constructing graphics to make it clear. The tutorials will also be accessible via the school's Web site. The project is a win-win for all students involved, said Trollinger, because it allows the eighth-graders to use higher-level thinking skills to apply their knowledge to new situations, while providing a viable remediation tool for the low achiever.

Trollinger also sees the project as yet another way for educators to work with children in their own, technologically-oriented worlds. "It's all about meeting them in their own world, where students are so much savvier than we are when it comes to technology," said Trollinger. "Anytime we can truly get 'into' the world of a 13-year-old, we increase our chances of getting through to them."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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