Top math teacher stars in documentary

Video producer Jon Silver takes video in Tobi Brown's seventh

Gilroy
– As a veteran teacher, Tobi Brown is used to having all eyes on
her in the classroom – but not like this.
It was a little bit of Hollywood in Gilroy Thursday morning as a
crew from the New Teacher Center, based at the University of
California, Santa Cruz, filmed four of Brown’s seventh-grade math
classes at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School.
Gilroy – As a veteran teacher, Tobi Brown is used to having all eyes on her in the classroom – but not like this.

It was a little bit of Hollywood in Gilroy Thursday morning as a crew from the New Teacher Center, based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, filmed four of Brown’s seventh-grade math classes at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School.

The video will be part of an extensive documentary produced by the center, highlighting effective teaching techniques in classrooms across the country.

The center produces such documentaries regularly, visiting schools across the country in search of quality, veteran teachers. After they’ve identified one, the crew spends a day filming the classroom and doing extensive interviews with the teacher. The final product is shown to new teachers throughout the United States as a means of support and a model of exemplary teaching.

Staff from the New Teacher Center identified Brown in the fall after tagging along with Gilroy Unified School District administrators for one the district’s periodic classroom walk-throughs.

Brown, a 21-year veteran, was chosen for her effective use of a teaching technique called checking for understanding, which is making sure students understand the material by interacting with them and asking questions.

“Teaching math at the secondary level is very important and often difficult,” said Jon Silver, a video producer with the New Teacher Center. “We were interested in the connection between math and literacy and how Tobi develops students’ math skills in relation to other skills.”

Brown said making sure students understand the larger concepts behind math is part of her teaching philosophy. When students learn beyond the strict formulas and definitions, they can apply the larger lessons to other areas, Brown said.

“It’s important to be able to break it down for kids in order for it to make sense. It’s not just about memorizing formulas, because they’ll forget those,” she said. “They need to see the connection.”

When Brown asks her students if they understand a lesson, she’s not glancing down at her notes or erasing the whiteboard. She’s making eye contact with each one, taking mental note of who needs more help.

Often, Brown employs what she calls a whole group response, where she asks students to give a thumbs-up if they understand the material. Or, she gives students a two-minute time limit to complete a problem. When the two minutes is up, she asks them how much more time they need.

“Some students will go like this,” Brown said, making a zero out of her hand. “Others will hold up one more minute, or two more, or five more. That helps me know who needs more time and who might need more help.”

An individual, student-specific approach is something Brown said she strives to incorporate into her classroom on a daily basis.

“Every student learns differently, and you need to find what’s going to work for every student,” she said. “You can’t just do things one way or you’ll lose too many kids.”

Part of the mission of the New Teacher Center is to examine successful teaching techniques in classrooms with a high percentage of students still learning English. The crew filmed two of Brown’s intervention math classes, both of which she said are about 90 percent English Language Learners.

In those classes especially, Brown uses a practice called partner check, where students pair up to discuss a specific lesson and answer each other’s questions. Brown, who doesn’t speak Spanish, said partner checks allow English Language Learners a chance to hear the material in Spanish or in a way that might make more sense to them. At times, having a friend or classmate explain something is more helpful than a teacher, Brown said.

“Sometimes they just need to hear it in a different way,” she said. “Or, I’ll have them come up to the whiteboard and write down their work, because they really want to show what they’ve done but can’t find the words.”

Then, when the students are asked to explain what they’ve written to the class, their English skills are challenged, helping them develop general literacy.

Mariah Torres, a pre-algebra student in Brown’s class, said math isn’t her favorite subject, but her teacher makes it enjoyable.

“Mrs. Brown explains things, and I understand,” Mariah said. “She makes it easier.”

Brown began her teaching career at Orchard School in downtown San Jose, the only school in the one-school district. After working there for two years, she went on to teach in Rialto, where her husband took a job before they moved to Gilroy in 1986.

Brown’s first job in GUSD was at Eliot Elementary School, where she also served as a teacher mentor and stayed for roughly 15 years. She then transferred to Brownell Middle School, where she began teaching math.

“I always liked math. I had a multi-subject credential, but I started taking more math classes because I liked it so well,” she said.

Brown’s evolving love for the subject also was evident to Monica Pirozzoli, who shared a classroom and taught classes with Brown at Eliot for about 13 years.

“Tobi made math fun every way she could. Students didn’t realize they were even doing math because they were having fun,” said Pirozzoli, who now teaches language arts at Brownell. “She has such control of her classroom, but it’s not really so much about control as it is mutual respect.”

Brown taught at Brownell for two years before coming to Solorsano, where she began teaching this year. Her classes include intervention, grade-level and accelerated math, as well as after-school tutoring for a half-hour twice a week.

Working at Solorsano has been a blessing for Brown. She said she’s motivated by the enthusiasm and dedication of her fellow teachers and principal Sal Tomasello.

“It’s really fun working with people who want to be here,” Brown said. “You start feeding off the energy of everyone else.”

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