Des Moines Central Academy Calculus teacher Mike Marcketti is determined to help as many students as possible uncover the wonders of problem solving from unraveling the mystery of “how to get there, to the rush of accomplishment when finishing, to the curiosity of ‘but, what if’…”
Mike has been teaching mathematics in the Blank Summer Institute since the mid-90s. He is also a Des Moines Challenge Saturday teacher/coordinator and an American Regions Mathematics League (ARML) coach. Those experiences unleashed a fascination with interesting problems that cause both teacher and students to really think about how we arrive at solutions, which he eloquently describes in our teacher feature. Mike is a veteran teacher, having taught at West High School in Iowa City, the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge, Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, and Central Academy in Des Moines.
Belin-Blank Center Director Susan G. Assouline (SGA): You started teaching in the Blank Summer Institute right after you finished your student teaching! What important idea(s) did you incorporate into your professional approach to working with all students as a result of your initial experience with talented students?
Mike Marcketti (MM): Let students learn from each other! Step away from the front and allow students to explain their thought processes as often as possible. Not only does it allow each student in the class to frequently see multiple methods of attacking a problem, many times I learn something new myself! The best teaching I do is when I am able to provide a setting where students teach each other and I act as a resource and a content expert. The first summer I taught for the Belin-Blank Center, I was free from the normal curricular constraints of a traditional school classroom and I was emboldened to experiment to a far greater degree with letting students talk (and talk and talk) about their thinking. Because of the wondrous results, I was encouraged to incorporate this classroom style even further into my academic year classroom. Even now, I continually examine what opportunities I am giving students to teach, and learn from, each other.
SGA: Since 1991, the University of Iowa has been the Midwest site for the American Regions Mathematics League (ARML) competition; why is that competition important to bright students?
MM: It is tremendously prestigious within the community of the nation’s top high school mathematicians to host ARML. The contest is basically the national championship for high school mathematicians. In the ballroom at the Iowa Memorial Union for a few hours one Saturday each spring sit the best teenage mathematicians in the region. As a benefit to Iowa, the atmosphere of the weekend invigorates and motivates the Iowa team members. They measure themselves against the best from Texas, Chicago and Michigan all-star teams among other squads. This causes them to learn more throughout the subsequent school years as they prepare for their next ARML experiences. Over the years, the Iowa team has improved to the spot where they are consistently among the nation’s top finishers. Without the proximity of the contest being held on the UI campus, it is very unlikely that young Iowa mathematicians would continue to attain this level.
SGA: What are the benefits of Challenge Saturday to your students and to you?
MM: The students improve as problem solvers, plain and simple. It is clear to me from my years of work with students in problem solving classes like Challenge Saturday that you can learn to be a better problem solver. The atmosphere in my Challenge Saturday room is designed to facilitate this improvement. Students do NOT simply listen to me tell them how to solve a problem. They share how they tried to solve problems in the context of various strategies that we continually reinforce (look for patterns, draw diagrams, solve a simpler related problem, etc). Not only do the students leave as much more capable problem solvers, they teach me a lot. They give me great insights into how talented students think. It may seem surprising, but I easily carry the lessons I learn from these 4th-6th graders about their knowledge accrual and transfer it to my high school students who succeed in state and national level math competitions.
SGA: You work with students day in and day out. What is the most important lesson that you have learned about TAG students?
MM: Offer them challenges! Even if I think, “Oh, no one will want to think this hard, what’s the point in posing this question,” I have learned to pose the question. TAG students relish the opportunity to intellectually strain themselves. I have reached the point where I now feel I am cheating my students if I do not offer them opportunities to think beyond the normal level. As frequently as possible, I try to make these opportunities voluntary and without negative grade consequences if “success” is not achieved. I never cease to be amazed at how many students accept challenges just for the fun of it.