Real-life Math Lessons Help Students Measure Up

Tribute to a fantastic Math Teacher

Henry Brown III was teaching math in Hallandale Beach, Florida, and his classroom was always open for business. He displays lumber, cut to several sizes, and plants, green and growing.

The task for his students, half of whom enter this alternative high school with math skills below the fifth-grade level: to design an outdoor garden. At Brown’s Shopping Center, as he calls his classroom, once-failing students whip out calculators and legal pads to measure a triangular border. They compute the best value for the boards on a price per foot basis.

Brown enlists decision-making skills, too: How will they get the boards home? Suppose it’s raining? Won’t they need a car? “Mr. Brown, we’re making you a garden. We’re buying your wood. And now you want us to buy you a car? You’re tripping!” says Tinese Johnson, 19. The whole class laughs at this gentle gibe, and at Brown’s enthusiastic, if pretended, sales pitch.

“I try to make them believe they’re really in a shopping center,” says Brown, 32, whose thematic lessons helped make him Florida’s 2001 Teacher of the Year as well as a member of the All-USA Teacher First Team. “If I’m bored, then I know the students are bored, too.”

Through the year, Brown may devise a dummy corporation. Students role-play as corporate executives, complete with business cards and dress-for-success garb. They’re assigned a task — choosing phone service, for example. They form task groups to arrive at decisions: How are the minutes billed? What if the cheapest company has ethical problems, like using child labor in a Third World country? To sway other board members, they must write a persuasive essay, a skill that many lack.

As with his hands-on math, Brown incorporates the writing skills needed for standardized tests. He wants to make them familiar with test concepts, rather than drill on specific questions.  “I don’t believe in ‘teaching to the test.’ I believe in teaching,” says Brown, who has helped students boost standardized scores by 40%. Says Linda Lopez, Brown’s principal at Hallandale Adult Alternative School: “His classes are an incredible learning event. It’s not just a lesson.”

Once troubled, Brown is an ideal role model for students at the alternative school, which combines middle, high school and adult education classes. The school has some 4,000 students, most low-income, and more than 75% minority. About 1,200 of the students are seventh- through 12th-graders who either dropped out of traditional high school or were in danger of flunking out. Problems range from teen pregnancy to chronic absenteeism, from low academic skills to criminal behavior.

Before he can even start teaching, Brown has to break through barriers that are both academic and emotional. He meets and tests each student individually, both to establish strengths and weaknesses, and to choose the most effective teaching technique. “He reaches before he teaches,” Lopez says. “It’s important to the kids to let them know how much he cares about them.”

In private, he tells them about his own rocky past. He had family problems. He fought and caused trouble in school. He even cursed out teachers. Like many of his students, he heard more than once he’d never amount to anything, that he’d end up a failure. So do these teachers earn enough?

But a teacher at Lauderhill (Fla.) Middle School helped Brown turn around and inspired him to teach. They still stay in touch, and Cora Russell attended the ceremony this summer in Orlando honoring him as Florida’s top teacher. Says Brown: “I don’t know what she saw in me, but she saw something good.”