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Teacher Turns Into a Programmer to Take the Terrors Out of Math

April 30, 1987|MIKE WYMA | Mike Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer

High math anxiety. It sounds like the title of a Mel Brooks movie. But Dan Doane didn't have to visit a theater to see it. Doane, a teacher at Amelia Earhart High School in North Hollywood, encountered high math anxiety daily in the classroom.

"These kids think they're stupid, but they're not," he said of his students. Most attend Earhart--a continuation school--because they were on the verge of dropping out altogether.

"I thought maybe we should put math in their lives in a different way," said Doane, 34, who has shaggy black hair and wears a gold earring. "Maybe we could make it more interesting, because if we taught English the way we teach math, kids would still be memorizing sonnets."

When Doane set out three years ago to find alternative ways to teach math, he had no idea he would end up writing grant requests that would raise more than $170,000 for Earhart and other schools. Nor that he would become a computer programmer, writing 32 pieces of software on basic math.

Computers entered the picture, Doane said, because he had a hunch about continuation students.

Like Working With Hands

"These kids are real project oriented, and they like to get involved with their hands," he explained. "They'll sit here in class with books and not do anything, but they'll go home at night and tear a motorcycle apart and put it back together. Computers are good because they're kinesthetic. You use it and it responds to you."

Doane knew that students enjoyed computers, because the school had a few of them by the early 1980s. "But we weren't as effective as we wanted to be," Doane said. "We found that good software either wasn't available or it was too expensive, or teachers needed too much instruction to use it. So we wanted to develop software that would help students and that teachers could use quickly."

In 1984, the state Department of Education began offering "educational technology" grants designed to encourage introduction of computers and related equipment into schools. Doane applied, telling the selection committee he wanted to "create basic math software specifically for use in individualized settings such as continuation high schools. This software will encourage the learning of mathematics by students who have had repeated failure in mathematics."

Had to Give Up Teaching

His application was approved, and Doane has received $107,000 over a two-year period for his project, which he named "Successful Math, Successful Student." The funds bought equipment and paid for a consultant and an assistant programmer. The money also has paid Doane's salary since September, because writing the programs has meant giving up teaching for a year.

"That's the one bad part," said Doane. "I miss teaching. It's very addicting work, because you get involved in the students' lives. You see a lot of positive changes, and there's a real charged energy you get from it."

Doane's enthusiasm and hard work earned him recognition as state teacher of the year by the California Continuation Education Assn. in 1984. He has won other honors as well. But in the matter of landing the grants, Doane said that much credit goes to Richard Corian of the Los Angeles Unified School District's grants assistance unit.

"In the continuation schools, not many of us had written grants before," Doane said. "Until recently, the money just wasn't there. The grants unit teaches us how to write them. If there are problems, they work it out."

Corian said there are tricks to the trade when it comes to winning grants.

Criterion Is Cyclical

"First of all, most grants are federal or state," he explained. "The purposes are determined by legislators, not educators. And they go in cycles. When Sputnik went up, it was math and science. Then it went to cultural subjects--the war on poverty, the development of cities. Then you had bilingual, the year of women, and now it's back to science and math again. Grants reflect what's in the newspapers."

Corian said that schools play the odds.

"They look at a grant and ask if its purpose will help their school. Then they see how much money there is; do they have a resonable chance of getting it? If so, they try."

Doane's knack for writing grant requests also has brought awards of $12,000 and $4,000 to his school, and a $49,000 federal grant to establish a resource center for all the Los Angeles District continuation high schools. Perhaps his biggest test still lies before him--landing a final $40,000 educational technology grant from the state to disseminate his "Successful Math, Successful Student" program.

Help Line for Teachers

The money would be used in part to produce and distribute statewide a videotape explaining and offering the program to teachers, and to establish an after-school help line to answer questions from teachers using it.

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