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Building math knowledge and life skills

Ondrea Johnston always knew she would follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a teacher. Like her mother, she simply enjoyed helping people learn. Unlike her English-teacher mother, though, Johnston found her passion in numbers not words.

For the last seven years, she has taught pre-algebra to seventh-graders at Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Boston. But some of the most important lessons she teaches aren’t about variables, expressions or equations. In her classroom, she teaches the importance of community and responsibility, too. “I really work on my students, trying to make sure they’re good citizens in mainstream society,” she says. “Some come from broken homes.”

To that end, Johnston places her students, the majority of whom come from low-income families, in groups of three to teach them the value of teamwork. She assigns each group a pretend bank account to give students banking experience. Students can earn “money” for their accounts by staying on task or contributing a great idea in class. Students lose money by misbehaving or coming to class unprepared. If even one member of the group is not on task, the whole group suffers the consequences. Each month, Johnston awards prizes, such as juice boxes, to the group that has the most money in its account.

Johnston also builds real-life experiences by having her students apply for classroom jobs such as classroom director (a student leader who encourages classmates to prepare for assignments) and classroom tutor (a student strong enough in math to help peers). For each job, students earn a monthly “salary,” which goes into their group’s bank account. Johnston says she has students apply for the positions so they learn that “in real life, there’s competition.” To stay “employed,” students must keep up with their class work.

Besides serving as building representative for her school and teaching an elective class on African-American history, Johnston’s main focus is adding to students’ math knowledge. “I take what they already know and build upon it,” she says. Sometimes, students need to work with her one-on-one to master difficult concepts. At Edwards, a school with an extended-day program, students have extra time to work with teachers. For instance, Johnston recalls how proud she was of one student who regularly met with her for extra help. He raised his standardized test scores to the proficient level after he started to believe he could do the work. “He already had the math knowledge,” she says. “He just wasn’t confident in himself.”

Colleagues have every confidence in Johnston. She’s “firm, but fun, and very fair,” says Sheila Levine, an English language arts teacher and team leader for the seventh grade. “The kids love her. They know they’re going to get their lessons and they’re going to learn.”