Math meets art, music, and pop culture

ROBERT MACCARTHY/METROThis story¬†about a middle school math teacher appeared in the Tribune last week, and I forgot to blog about it. In case you missed it, the piece is about Robert MacCarthy’s unconventional approach to teaching mathematics — and getting his sixth-graders to love it.

I recently observed one of his sixth-grade classes at Willard Middle School in Berkeley. It was way different than any of the math classes I had in junior high, though I did have good teachers.

His kids play games, create graph art, and make math music videos, but don’t get me wrong: MacCarthy is serious about the subject, and his room — though sometimes noisy — had that under-control feel.

Do you know people who teach in a similar way? What creative lessons have your kids responded to?

 Photo by Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • livegreen

    That’s great.

    BTW, is Willard teaching geometry? How many OUSD Middle Schools are now teaching Geometry?

  • OUSD Parent

    Livegreen: I think that Montera teaches Geometry in the 8th grade for those students that are ready for it. Can a Montera parent or teacher confirm this?

  • Mr. X

    I think Roosevelt and Brewer also offer Geometry.

  • Katy Murphy

    I just emailed the district’s math coordinator to ask him which OUSD middle schools offer geometry. Will let you know when I hear back!

  • Oakland Teacher

    Mr MacCarthy is a 6th grade teacher. Sixth grade math is not geometry. It is still a mixture of many different types of math standards including: fractions, percent, decimals, algebra, geometry, etc… The standards are similar, but ramped up as compared to fifth grade. It would include Geometry, but NOT be a Geometry class. Geometry is an advanced middle school math class, and only available after students have taken Algebra 1 in 7th (and very rarely 6th) grade. Normal sequence is to take Algebra in 8th grade, Geometry in 9th, so there are many middle schools that do not have Geometry classes (the bigger the school, the more likely – as they will have more students who are advanced enough to offer those classes).

  • Livegreen

    I just heard from a friend that their child is in 8th Grade at Edna Brewer and taking Geometry. (& also in the Jazz & one other Band). Pretty impressive!

  • Seenitbefore

    even Claremont offers Geometry for 8th graders who meet the criteria…. not that unusual…..

  • Mick,


    Oakland teacher is indeed correct. At Willard 94% of the 6th graders took the “General Math” state test and 63% passed.

    Only 84% of their 7th graders took the gerneral math test and 48% passed.

    They only had 3 8th graders who took the Geometry state test. It does not indicate how many passed.

    So much for “MacCarthy’s unconvential approach to teaching mathmatic.” Maybe he should try the convential approach to improve the students Geometry results.

    In Oakland, we have schools that doing a much better job.

  • Katy Murphy

    I don’t follow the logic here. If just three eighth-graders at the school were tested in geometry, sounds like the school doesn’t (or didn’t) offer the course to eighth-graders. How can a teacher improve the geometry results when none existed? I thought Oakland teacher was simply noting that MacCarthy is not a geometry teacher, which is true! The story was not about geometry, either, but we somehow got onto the subject.

  • Mick,


    No one said the story was about geometry.It is about Mr. MacCarthy’s unconvential approach to teaching math; however, the data does not sujest his approch is that effective overall at the school.

    There are a high percentage of students at the school not takeing the state math test. This is not your point of the story; however, it is part of the story on student data relating to the CST.

    Keep up your good work. It has us sharing our perspectives on your stories.

  • livegreen

    Of course not all students need to take Geometry in 8th Grade to be successful in math. However the 48% of Willard 7th graders Mick mentioned passed the general math test lead to some questions:

    -Were they all Mr. MacCarthy’s students, and if not how did his compare to the others?;
    -How did the kids grades compare to either their math grades the previous year?;
    -How have the test results on the general math tests compared over a longer time line, as Mr. MacCarthy implemented his program.

    It is, of course, also desirable to see the kids in the middle excel and to see kids who otherwise be disinterested in math become enthused by math and studies, as well as gain confidence in their academic abilities.

    That might not be good enough for the excelling students, but it’s definitely great for the kids at basic & below basic AND for society at large.

    Keep up the kids enthusiasm Mr. MacCarthy!

  • Katy Murphy

    I’m not sure about your broader questions, but there are a number of math teachers at Willard — eight or so who teach math as one of their subjects. From the school’s staff roster, it looks like three of them taught eighth-grade or Algebra in 2010-11, and there was at least one other teacher who taught sixth-grade math. Maybe two. Not sure about 2009-10, though, when the seventh-graders you referenced (via 2011 scores) would have been in sixth grade.

  • Teaches at Oakland School

    Montera has been teaching Geometry for years

  • Eve

    Westlake Middle has Geometry for some 8th graders too. New this year (I think) is the 6 week “math lab” for 6th graders likely to take the usual 8th grade algebra class next year as 7th graders. My daughter (who’s historically not a math-lover) really likes Mr. Beem who’s teaching the lab. He has them outside measuring angles of basketball poles and other fun hands-on activities. So many creative teachers at Westlake.

  • http://www.thefrustratedteacher.com/ TFT

    That is a picture of of BUSD teacher Matt Lipner. He’s awesome too.

  • Katy Murphy

    Which picture?