Courtney Niemeyer loves the games.
“If they’re playing a game, they’re having fun,” she said.
Niemeyer is a first-grade teacher at Bitterroot Elementary, but last year she was a math instructional coach for Billings School District 2, helping other district educators hone their math teaching abilities.
She’s also recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and will travel to Washington, D.C., next week with 84 other winners to meet President Barack Obama.
The news that she’d won was something of a surprise, she said. She started the process of applying more than a year ago.
Nominated by an SD2 colleague, Niemeyer wrote a detailed report on the techniques and methods she uses to teach math. She also filmed an unedited hour of herself teaching.
All of it went off to the Montana Office of Public Instruction where officials there selected three teachers to go on to the national level. A year later, Niemeyer learned she was one of 85 winners. “It was such a long process I kind of forgot I applied,” she said with a laugh.
Niemeyer’s hope is that the prestige of the award will allow her to reach out to more math teachers, showing them that there’s a number of ways to effectively teach math to young students.
For years, educators have focused on hammering home math concepts to middle school and high school students. But researchers — and teachers — are learning that relatively complex math concepts can be taught effectively to younger children, Niemeyer said.
“Primary math is kind of a new focus,” she said.
Sitting with her students Tuesday morning, she used some of those concepts. Starting a new game, Niemeyer passed around handfuls of small, multicolored plastic blocks and sheets of paper with number squares to her students.
Rolling a pair of dice, students had to add and subtract small numbers to figure out where on the paper the blocks could be set down or removed.
“This is a fun game to play,” said first-grader Alex LaRance.
“I’m learning you have to roll the dice to find the number,” announced Kie McGinnis.
The students were aware that they were using math to play the game, but they balked at suggestions that they were learning any kind of mathematical concepts.
However, the more they played and the more they found themselves adding numbers and computing their spots on the numbered paper, it started to sink in.
“We’re adding and taking stuff away,” Alex said.
“It teaches us math,” said classmate Kyra Johnson.
Niemeyer smiled. Along with the award, she receives $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and was told she can use it at her discretion.
“It’s a lot of money for a teacher,” she said. “I haven’t wrapped my head around that.”