How a St. Charles teacher is instilling love for math in young students
Lynn Pittner's favorite technique for teaching math begins with two simple questions: "What do we notice? What do we wonder?"
What do we notice about the number of animals at the zoo, or the amount of candy dispensed from a machine when we feed it a quarter? What do we wonder about the cost or the ingredients or the process of making a chocolate sucker?
The students shout out their observations and make some estimates. And then they set about finding their own solutions to the problem at hand, using whichever strategies work best for them: place values, the arrow way, an open number line, the chip model.
"There's a lot of individuality because all children are on a continuum," said Pittner, who is in her sixth year as a math specialist at Davis Primary School in St. Charles.
"They learn a lot, they have fun, and they're applying what they've learned in class to a real-life situation."
The activities, called math tasks, have been crucial in helping her kindergartners through second-graders become "flexible thinkers" and develop a conceptual understanding of math early on, she said.
But parents, colleagues and administrators say Pittner's teaching methods -- not to mention her love and enthusiasm for the subject -- ignite a passion in them, too.
That's a key reason why Pittner is leaving "enormous shoes to fill" when she retires at the end of this academic year, first-grade teacher Rachel McCulloch said.
"She brings new life and has just revitalized math in this whole building as something that we want to teach," she said. "The kids have changed the way they think about math, too. They're not scared of it like they used to be. She really did make an enormous shift."
Living the dream
Throughout Pittner's robust career, whatever grade level she's teaching at the time becomes her new favorite.
First, it was sixth grade in downstate Rantoul before she took some time off to raise her children. Then, when she became an educator for the academically talented math program in St. Charles Unit District 303, she became enthralled by the intelligence and energy of her intermediate-level students.
After getting her master's degree in math education, Pittner's next move was teaching eighth grade -- a fascinating time in students' lives, she said, because "they're children but want to be adults. And they have a great sense of humor."
Her husband's job eventually moved them out to California, where she continued teaching middle school math. But after about six years, she said, she felt ready to return home to Illinois.
Amid those discussions, a close friend asked, "If you had your dream, what would you do next in your career?"
Pittner wanted to go back to the beginning.
In the same way children learn to read, she wanted to experience how they begin to understand numbers. She wanted to become a math coach of sorts for early elementary students, to help them develop number sense.
Not that a job like that existed, she and her friend said, laughing. Not for children that young.
Six months later, by sheer coincidence, Pittner learned of a new position District 303 would be trying out in three schools: a math specialist. She applied and got the job at Davis, which offers only kindergarten through second grade.
Guess which age group she fell in love with next?
"I absolutely love these little ones that come to school ready and willing to learn," she said. "Their enthusiasm for learning is unbelievable."
Being a primary school, Davis staff members have always focused heavily on literacy, a subject with which they're very comfortable, Principal Denise Liechty said. Then, about five years ago, Pittner came into the picture with a contagious zeal for math and a depth of knowledge that allowed her to build foundational skills for both students and educators.
"Now my teachers are equally excited about math," Liechty said.
When she started her new position, Pittner sensed that teachers in the building were "hungry for a change." Eager to collaborate, they embraced every new method she introduced, she said, and they even took summer classes with her to strengthen their techniques.
Eventually, Pittner's role morphed into an ever-changing mix of classroom visits and small group sessions and faculty meetings, all while acting as a resource to the teachers. The math specialist positions are now in all schools, she added.
"We were just trying to make a shift in the pedagogy of teachers in the classrooms," Pittner said. "I think we were all pleasantly surprised that when children are given a big math problem that requires them to apply their learning, they're extremely motivated."
Getting the parents on board can make all the difference.
The methods taught at Davis offer an entirely new way of learning math, compared to the standard algorithm taught to most adults, she said. "We all learned math without context."
To help parents better understand the curriculum, Pittner provides demonstrations at parent-teacher conferences, sends home activities for students during breaks, and works with other specialists in the district to host math nights.
After one adult math lesson with Pittner, parent Sarah Mowat said, she and her husband walked away feeling like experts.
"She's magical ... and very good at boosting confidence," said Mowat, whose two daughters attend Davis. "I don't think I realized until I was the parent of a kindergartner what a difference a teacher can make in their lives."
'A ray of sunshine'
Years ago, while teaching academically talented math at Wild Rose Elementary, Pittner walked into the classroom one day holding a chocolate sucker.
"I want to make these and sell them," she told her students, initiating a round of questioning similar to "What do we notice? What do we wonder?"
After figuring out how many suckers they could make with a half-pound of chocolate -- and at what cost -- the kids asked if they could turn their lesson into a real business. They gathered at Pittner's house on a Saturday afternoon and made 500 suckers, which they sold to their classmates after settling on a price.
That real-life math problem was recounted years later as a former student's "fondest memory" of the advanced math program. A Benet Academy student at the time with plans to study aerospace engineering at Purdue University, he sent a letter thanking Pittner for the "very positive impact" she had on his life.
"You gave me my love for math and science that has led me to pursue a career that involves the two," the student's letter says. "You created and fostered my passion for numbers that continues to grow today."
That level of enthusiasm and rigor remains ingrained in Pittner's teaching style, colleagues say, as does her compassion and ability to build relationships.
Almost every morning at 7 a.m., Pittner pops into the principal's office and says, "Got a minute?" before diving into the details of a new math concept she wants to try, or celebrating a great piece of student work, or applauding a teacher's strategy.
"She's one that can see the math in anything and will find the oddest of tools and circumstances to utilize for getting kids engaged in math," Liechty said. "She always sees what they can do, and then catapults her instruction so they are taking it to the next level."
Pittner is an advocate for students, a cheerleader for teachers and a "ray of sunshine in our building," kindergarten teacher Megan Oster says. She'll work patiently and productively with kids and staff members alike for as long as it takes to solve a problem.
And, most importantly, she makes members of the Davis community believe in their abilities.
"In our building, we don't just do math," Pittner says. "We're mathematicians."
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Name: Lynn Pittner
Occupation: Math specialist, teacher at Davis Primary School in St. Charles
Education: Bachelor's degree in education from Illinois State University; master's degree in math education from National-Louis University
Past teaching jobs: Seventh-grade math teacher at Central Middle School, Riverside, California; eighth-grade math teacher at Haines Middle School, St. Charles; academically talented math coordinator for District 303; academically talented math teacher for District 303; sixth-grade teacher at Maplewood School, Rantoul
Honors: 2011-12 Central Middle School Teacher of the Year in Riverside, California; 2007 Kane County Middle School Teacher of the Year
Other experience: Co-authored "Understanding Middle School Math" with Arthur Hyde, Susan Friedlaner and Cheryl Heck; previously provided professional development for Heinemann Publishing
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Tips from a great teacher
When it comes to teaching math, Lynn Pittner has plenty of methods for helping young children develop a conceptual understanding of the subject. As a math specialist at Davis Primary School in St. Charles for more than five years, she has spread her passion and enthusiasm for math throughout the building, colleagues say.
But there's far more to being a great teacher than having a wealth of knowledge. Here are some words of advice Pittner offers to other teachers:
• Build relationships with your students. Love each and every one.
• Make sure your students know you care.
• Be fair and consistent.
• Have high expectations for your students. ALL students will succeed.
• Never do for students what they can do for themselves. Support them, but productive struggle is important for learning.
• Build relationships and collaborate with colleagues.
• Be passionate about learning. Be a lifelong learner.