“Are you checking my math?” asks Maine Coast Semester teacher Liz Burroughs, turning from a whiteboard, where she’s solving a calculus problem, to face her students.
Yes, they say, they are. Sun is pouring through the Ellis Room windows, creating a halo around the students in the back row. Satisfied, the soft-spoken, strong-minded Burroughs turns back to her calculations, swiftly slashing figures across the board like an Olympic figure skater carving into fresh ice.
“I think we need the quotient rule for this one,” says one student.
Burroughs: “Did you use the quotient rule?”
Student 1: “Nope. And I think I was wrong.”
Student 2: “Why would you need the quotient rule? It’s just too much work!”
Student 1: “Oh, heck.”
A couple of students say they did indeed use the rule.
Burroughs: “How did it go?”
“It went well,” says a boy, underscoring his victory with an exaggerated “Yesss.”
The class spools out in a stream of calculations, questions, and conversation. Then Burroughs takes a breath.“You guys have been doing a lot of derivations,” she says, “and you might be starting to wonder, ‘What is the point of deviations, other than torture?’”
The students explain their thinking, sometimes earning understated praise from Burroughs and approving nods from their peers, other times fielding questions about why they tackled the problem the way they did. There is no shame and no math anxiety here. A congenial spirit prevails–everyone is eager to find and share an elegant solution.
Burroughs grew up not far from Chewonki and was one of Maine Coast Semester’s first students. She became an English major at Bryn Mawr College but she also discovered there an interest in mathematics and science. She earned master’s degrees in forestry and environmental management at Duke and later, back in Maine, received a master’s in math and science education from the University of Maine (Orono).
“Having a child got me interested in teaching,” she says. Her daughter, Ana, attends the Elementary School at Chewonki. The two love exploring the forests, mountains, and waters of Maine as well as Central America.
“Everything in my background is tied together in my work here,” says Burroughs. She’s in her home state, teaching a subject she loves, in a rural setting, a short walk from where Ana is studying. “I love the emphasis on the outdoors, getting to be with the students during work programs, organizing their wilderness trips and solos. There is so much that you don’t necessarily see in the classroom…I get to see my students as whole people.”
“How did these problems feel?” Burroughs inquires after each budding mathematician writes the solution to one of last night’s homework problems on the board.
“The first one was pretty difficult,” says Brandon.
“The learning is in the struggle, right?” smiles Burroughs.
Then she brings the calculations back down to earth. “I need firewood. I have a tree in my woods and I would like to know how much it has grown each year so I can decide, Shall I cut it now?” She lifts a tree borer from her desk and explains how foresters use the tool to take a sample from a tree’s core, which shows how much the tree has grown each year of its life. Then she points out how calculus can predict the future growth of the tree.
Burroughs and fellow math teacher Katie Curtis appreciate math’s usefulness in everyday life and the many ways it intersects with other fields of study. Says Burroughs, “I see connections between math and writing, and math and science…The sorts of arguments you use in math are much like those you use in a persuasive essay or scientific reasoning. I like the reasoning behind it–the goal of understanding why…It’s all about commonplace experience and logic.”
Because students come from many kinds of schools all over the country, Maine Coast Semester must offer a wide variety of math subjects. Burroughs teaches one level of pre-calculus, two levels of calculus, and Algebra 2. Curtis also teaches Algebra 2 (and, like Burroughs, grew up in Maine in an academic family). Teaching Fellow Tina Glusac provides extra support for math students when it’s needed.
“A lot of students in our culture believe they are a math person or they are not a math person,” she says. “I don’t think that’s true. If you tell yourself you are not a math person, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” She is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen to any of her students.
She hopes her Maine Coast Semester math students will take lessons forward in their lives both in and outside of classrooms. “Most of my students will not become mathematicians,” she says,” but math teaches them to break things apart and use vigorous logic to come up with answers.”