Alumna's Teaching Strategies Revolutionize Math Class

Donna Quallen '16

An idea Donna Quallen '16 developed last fall in a capstone course as part of her Master's of Education degree program not only transformed the way she teaches math at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, it changed the trajectory of her students' education by improving all of their Accuplacer math scores by at least 28 percent. As a result, Quallen expects about 75 percent of her students – most of whom are high school seniors – will be ready to take a credit-bearing, college-level math class by this fall, instead of having to enroll in non-credit-bearing math modules designed to bring them up to speed.

In contrast, Quallen said that test scores earned last year by a similar group of students who also struggle with math indicated that an average of only about 12 percent were ready or almost ready for college math. She credits the dramatic shift to an innovative physical reconfiguration of her classroom, and a change in performance assessments. Instead of seating students at individual desks, she grouped them at tables topped with whiteboards to encourage collaborative problem-solving.

The teamwork-based teaching method necessitated an elimination of traditional tests and quizzes. Instead, she grades them on the quality of their teamwork with peers, along with effort and presentation. Quallen teaches an "Introduction to College Algebra" class for students who struggle with math. "Our goal in this class is to get to kids to college-level math, or so close that over the summer they might be able to get the scores they need to take a college math class in the fall."

Most of Quallen's students are in their third year with her as their teacher, so she's familiar with their learning styles. "That's what precipitated this whole change in physical environment," she said. "It's led to the most amazing results I've ever seen." According to Quallen, one of the best ways for students to become active learners is to have them work in groups.

After hearing about an idea to mount whiteboard on a table, she spoke with Taconic's carpentry teacher, and asked if his students would measure the tables, then cut and adhere to them the whiteboard she purchased. He agreed, and Quallen tested the change on two tables in her classroom. "A funny thing happened," she said. "At those two tables, the students were working and working. The other ones were asking to use the tables, so we wound up covering all five of them."

"Now, I had tables where students could do the work. If they needed help, I could just go over and write in the middle of the board so everyone could see," Quallen said. "Plus, I found that because students liked writing on the whiteboard, they would try the problems. Now, all of a sudden, they were trying. They'd say, 'Oh, this is not quite as hard as I thought it was going to be.'" After students agree that they've solved a problem, Quallen checks their result before they move on. "I erase what was wrong so they know where they need to fix the mistake." Working together as a team, each student contributes different strengths, which allows them to learn from each other.

One student told Quallen, "If I make a mistake, I take one of your cloths, wipe it off, and start all over again. When I make a mistake on paper, I cross it all out, and the whole time I see that on my paper, telling me, 'Hey, you don't know what you're doing.'" Although her students acknowledge they're doing much more math work than ever before, "They don't mind," Quallen said. "They say it's fun to do math on the whiteboard, and it's easier to understand because, if something was wrong, all they had to do was wipe it off and try it again."

After spending the summer making modifications to additional lessons, Quallen plans to share her results with other teachers in professional development settings. "MCLA helped me to look at things differently," Quallen said, "and to take a broad idea, narrow it down, focus it, and turn it into something that's really worthwhile."

Since he graduated from MCLA in 2013, Max Roman Dilthey has amassed more than five million readers through his cycling, hiking and backpacking website,, and with online publications his writing has appeared in, such as The Solar Tribune, The Houston Chronicle, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and
Because of this work, Dilthey, who double majored in English and environmental studies at MCLA, recently won the 2016 New England Outdoor Writing Association's Award.
"I write about things that mean a lot to me, and I think anyone can connect with someone's experience if the story they're telling is meaningful and honest," Dilthey said.
"I think it's great that a lot of my work resonates with people. I especially love the community on my site, where I have regular readers who comment and tell me what they think about my articles. That feedback really makes me want to write more and more," he added.
Dilthey originally planned to major in art. He switched to English after a positive experience in a writing course. Then, during his sophomore year, he became "hooked" on biology after taking a course to fulfill a science prerequisite, and ended up adding the environmental studies major soon after.
"I don't think I'd have picked either of these majors if I wasn't inspired by the courses and professors at MCLA," Dilthey said.
Now a graduate student in the Sustainability Science program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he is completing his master's degree and beginning work on his Ph.D., Dilthey's many activities include working with a team of Ph.D. students and faculty to co-author a paper on adaptation and mitigation for climate change resilience in coastal environments.
Dilthey also teaches his own class," Sustainable Living: Solutions for the 21st Century," a four-credit course for first-year UMass students.
In addition, he's working with the Residential Academic Programs Office to develop new connections for first-year students and programming partners across the University of Massachusetts system as they create a general education course on life at college.
"I push the benefits and importance of a diverse, rich, and multifaceted education to my students any chance I get, using my time at MCLA as an example of the power of interdisciplinary learning. I am immensely proud of our school, and I am lucky to have started there. I would not be here without MCLA," he said.
In fact, Dilthey finds himself spending a good deal of time telling students about the benefits of his experiences at MCLA, such as how they can find opportunities in clubs and the value of  learning from a diverse selection of classes.
Dilthey, whose writing also is featured in Adventure Cycling and Bikepackers magazines, discovered his love for camping, hiking and backpacking during his senior year through the MCLA Outdoors Club. There, he learned everything he needed to know to eventually lead trips himself. The experience, he said, was "transformative."
At UMass, Dilthey said he has one of the strongest backgrounds in environmental law among others in his department. "MCLA taught me that the courses outside of your major or focus can sometimes be the most valuable to your career. 
He recommends MCLA – and the English and environmental sciences programs, in particular – to prospective students.
"Both of these degrees are absolutely as rigorous and comprehensive as degrees from other colleges, and I have never once felt underprepared for my career and graduate school. I know a lot of my peers that graduated with me would say the same thing," Dilthey said. "Our entire group is doing amazing things, and we're all still connected because of the sense of community we had at MCLA."

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