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Showcasing Cathy McDermott and "Singing Math"

"Music breaks up the regular class routine," Cathy McDermott told Education World. "My algebra students think they're wasting time when they want to sing, but I know they're learning math!"

McDermott's seventh and eighth graders at Surrey School in Surrey, North Dakota, use creative adaptations of familiar songs to remember basics of trigonometry and pre-calculus.

"I've only written lyrics for two songs -- Trig Song and Circles in the Snow -- but I also use other songs I've found online and at math conferences," McDermott explained. "My own two songs were created around the holidays, so I had Christmas music handy and just experimented with the facts I needed to include in the song. Circles in the Snow came to me as I was singing the tune of Jingle Bells."

Circles in the Snow
(Sung to the tune of Jungle Bells)

Circles in the snow,
Around and round we go, (Students make a circle in the air.)
How far did we run?
Pi times diameter, son.
How much snow inside?
Pi times radius square.
What fun it is to run and sing a geometry song today!
Oh, math is fun, math is fun, math is really cool.
Oh, what fun it is to sing in math class here in school.
Oh, math is fun, math is fun, math is really cool.
Oh, what fun it is to sing in math class here in school.

When she has a group of hesitant singers, McDermott has them respond to lines that she sings alone. At other times, she arranges students into two groups and encourages each group to "out sing" the other.

"One of my seventh graders was singing a math song at home while doing her homework, and her mom got the full explanation of why it was math and why it was okay to sing while she was working," recalled McDermott. "I got the story from her mother when she called to tell me that her daughter hadn't liked math before, but enjoyed singing the songs, and actually used the lyrics to do her assignments. She was feeling better about math."

Last year, McDermott taught the son of an elementary music teacher, and the two educators worked together to teach students to sing rounds. The music teacher continues to help her learn new math songs, and change words or tunes to improve existing songs. Students also recommend improvements to songs, and McDermott credits the administration at her school for helping her attend math conferences where she can pick up new tunes.

Teachers shouldn't be afraid of the sound of their own voices, says McDermott. Although she doesn't hit all the correct notes, she has fun with her students, and they are learning. Teachers Cindy Boyd and Kay Smitherman are among her favorite published songwriters, and for less confident math teacher/musicians, they provide sing-along cassettes!

"Maybe down the road when my students' children are complaining about a boring math class, they'll tell a positive story and let their children know math can be fun -- even if you aren't a math geek," McDermott said.

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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