Much of what you thought you knew about math class has been turned on its head at Dana Middle School in the Wiseburn School District.
Seventh- and eighth-graders at the west Hawthorne school don't really use textbooks or do much in the way of homework. The teachers rarely spend more than 10 minutes on any given lecture. At the beginning of class, instead of urging kids to quiet down, the teachers try to get them riled up.
If it all seems a little strange, the method of teaching - developed by researchers at Loyola Marymount University - also might offer a glimpse into what math instruction will look like in the future. At Dana, it has produced striking results.
In two years, the share of eighth-graders scoring proficient or better in algebra at the school has more than doubled, from 27 percent to 62 percent. Also, a strong majority of students at the school - 62 percent - now cite math as their favorite subject.
"Last year it was 46 percent, and I thought that was unbelievable," Wiseburn Superintendent Tom Johnstone said of the survey. "To me, this is the statement of the power of outstanding teachers."
Perhaps most impressively, officials believe the style of teaching - now in its fourth year at Dana - is a key factor in the school's elimination of the achievement gap separating the academic performance of black and white students.
The math pedagogy has been slowly spreading to more school districts throughout the South Bay. Like many education initiatives, it has its very own acronym - CMAST, which stands for the Center for Math and Science Teaching at LMU.
The teaching philosophy aligns with a sweeping transformation in education that is set to descend on the vast majority of states in the nation, Johnstone said. Called the Common Core State Standards, the reform effort - which will be implemented nationwide in two years - seeks to deepen critical-thinking skills by emphasizing mastery of material over memorization.
Likewise, the method of teaching math at Dana prioritizes conceptual understanding over "drill and kill" repetition, and student buy-in over schoolmaster lectures.
Instead of being told to do, say, 30 problems in the back of the book for homework, students have a hand in the process of assigning. They notify the teacher of the level of difficulty they're in the mood for on any given day - easy, medium or difficult - and, regardless of the option, rarely do more than a handful of problems.
"If you're a bright kid and you're crazy, you're probably going with a challenge all the time," Johnstone said, half-jokingly. "If you're in soccer, you'll challenge yourself part of the time, but you're also realistic."
Instead of sitting through 50-minute lectures, students spend the bulk of class time practicing problems on handheld whiteboards, which they hold aloft for the teacher's approval or disapproval all through the hour.
Lessons begin with a hook. Usually it's an age-appropriate pop-culture reference or funny video that demonstrates the conceptual aspect of the day's lesson - a way to break the ice and make some sense of the abstract.
To illustrate the general idea of improper fractions, Kevin Corrinet's algebra class recently watched a video of a tiny Chihuahua devouring a huge pizza. To introduce students to the idea of converting a point into a point-slope, they watched a clip from the movie "Iron Man," in which the protagonist, Tony Stark, transforms into superhero form.
"Sometimes it's a huge stretch," acknowledged Corrinet, a former military man and West Point alum whose classroom is adorned with a sign reading "No excuses!" "But from the students' point of view, it's also a great way to start the lesson. It activates their dendrites, it wakes them up, it gets them motivated."
Another key to the program at Dana is a kind of math lab, in which maybe 50 students who could use a little help cram into a room, break into groups of four and begin solving problems on big whiteboards. Also in the room are a handful of tutors, among them a classroom teacher, several knowledgeable students and one or two professional engineers.
"They are great role models," said Dana Principal Aileen Harbeck of the engineers, who work at either Raytheon Co. or Northrop Grumman. "The kids know where they are coming from."
One of the tutors is Rob Peckham, a Northrop engineer who has been donating several hours a week for six years. Peckham holds not only a mechanical engineering degree, but also a master's degree in computer science and an MBA, all from UCLA.
"The stereotype is teachers don't know much about the sciences," he said, taking a brief break between problems. "But coming here, I realized the teachers aren't the problem. (Instead) it's: Do the students care?"
As for the achievement gap, the diverse school appears to have accomplished quite a feat.
Seven years ago, white students - who make up about 8 percent of the population - outscored black students by 33 points on the Academic Performance Index, a measure of student success ranging from 200 to 1,000 based on a battery of springtime exams. In 2011, the gap had closed, with the black students - who constitute about a quarter of the school's pupils - scoring an impressive 875, surpassing the white students by a point. In 2012, the scores of both subsets rose again, the blacks to 904; the whites, to 899.
Statewide, white middle schoolers outperform their black peers by more than 150 points - 865 to 710.
To be sure, Wiseburn's sample is somewhat skewed, as the district is well-known for attracting commuter families from outside the boundaries. In general, families willing to commute to school tend to be more heavily invested in education in the first place, regardless of race or class.
Still, the scores indicate there once was a gap where now there is none. (The gap between white and Latino students - who make up more than half of the population - remains at 34 points and has been closing at a much slower rate.)
Johnstone said it wouldn't be accurate to say the math program was solely responsible for this success.
"I think the CMAST program was a key factor," he said. "But I also think that all of the boats are rising at the same time. ... Their scores went up in every single subject."
Meanwhile, for all the benefits of the math curriculum, Johnstone says there is a downside.
"The preparation that goes into it is just very, very intense," he said. "But it's hard to argue against it. ... The reward is having kids that are extremely successful in math."