Exeter Math Institute shifts to virtual for 2020

Using breakout rooms and online whiteboards, public school teachers experience Harkness math. How was it? Eye-opening.

Sarah Zobel
August 17, 2020
Screen shot of several people analyzing a math problem using an online whiteboard.

Math teachers from around the country engage in problem-solving during this summer's Virtual EMI. EMI founder Eric Bergofsky, second from top, watches as the problem unfolds online. 

A PEA instructor and his students, middle- and high-school math teachers, calculate the length of the shadow of a person walking away from a lamppost. Elsewhere, another teacher asks rhetorically, “Would we all agree that this red line minimizes the distance between C and D prime?” In response, a teacher explains how her group arrived at a solution, quoting Albert Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart—it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

It’s this year’s Exeter Mathematics Institute. The summer workshop series, founded in 1992, brings the Harkness model to schools around the U.S. and Europe, flying in a small team of PEA math instructors for four days. What’s different is that like so much learning in 2020, this summer’s EMI took place in virtual classrooms. And thanks to generous donors, all of the EMI workshops were offered at no cost to participants. 

A first for EMI

Though this summer’s session had been fully scheduled in January, it was scrapped when the pandemic hit. Yet school administrators and teachers kept reaching out to EMI Director Laura Marshall, asking if there was a way to carry on. So, together with Math Instructors John Mosley, Gwyn Coogan, Aviva Halani, Greg Spanier, Rachel Labes, David Huoppi and EMI founder Eric Bergofsky, when the PEA school year wrapped up, Marshall created EMI version 2.0. The teaching team initially focused on supporting school districts that had been planned pre-pandemic, but ended up adding a final session in August that was open to teachers anywhere in the country, a first for EMI. Marshall contacted previous attendees of the Anja S. Greer Conference on Mathematics and Technology, Exeter’s largest summer professional development conference, to spread the word about this new Virtual EMI open to all, and registration filled very quickly.

math problem on an online whiteboard

The sessions were successful thanks in part to an array of tools, including Zoom video conferencing, the Canvas learning platform, and Limnu, an online whiteboard. In the end, the only loss was the personal interactions—from getting to know each other over lunch to classroom conversations prompted by one group overhearing another’s approach to a problem.

Teaching resilience

“Our goals really haven’t changed much,” says Mosley of moving online. “We want to do a content refresh with the teachers, and we also want to introduce them to the Harkness style of teaching.”

Teachers in and around Atlanta, Kansas City, Palm Beach, Boston and Exeter attended remotely, with the exception of ten who were onsite in Kansas City. Teachers enrolled in one or two courses that met daily for three hours, with roughly a dozen in each. Classes began with a full-group discussion before teachers moved to breakout rooms in random groups of three or four to solve problems. Instructors circulated virtually among the groups to check progress.

“Sometimes they’d say, ‘Are we on the right track?’” says Labes. “I’d say, ‘What would you tell your students?’ And we’d have that conversation about how you help encourage your students to play with the problem. How do you help your students keep going, even if they’re not sure if they’re on the right track?”

I learned a lot for my students, because ultimately that’s why I do what I do—it’s for them."

Nicolas Iverson came with that very question in mind. Iverson teaches at STRIVE Prep — SMART, a Title I charter school in southwest Denver, where he splits his time between general and special education classes. He’s a fan of the Academy’s problem-based method.

“I have all these ideas buzzing around in my head as to how could I teach the way the Exeter faculty would teach,” he says. Iverson develops all his content because his school doesn’t provide him with textbooks, and is thrilled to have a new bank of “well-sequenced and scaffolded” problems at his disposal. He’ll have a secondary use for the Harkness discussion-based approach: more than 50 percent of his students are English Language Learners, and he’s required to use language-based activities in his math classes.

The student lens

For Henry Keys, experiencing online learning from the student perspective was priceless. Keys, who just completed his first year teaching 8th-grade math at Brookside Charter School in Kansas City after a career in engineering, says he was initially anxious about sharing answers in his EMI courses.

“In my mind I was like, what if I get it wrong? And then I thought, that’s what my students say!” he says, adding, “Everybody has to be a student at some point in their teaching career to get better. As teachers, we don’t know everything, and that’s OK.” Keys notes that while teaching any subject virtually is difficult, math has exceptional challenges—especially when, for example, one student understands how to rotate a figure over the x axis, while another is unable to grasp what the x axis is—and says he’s looking forward to using tools he mastered during EMI, including Desmos, an online graphing calculator, and GeoGebra.

“All this stuff was accessible to me—I just didn’t use it because I didn’t know about it,” says Keys.

math problem on online whiteboard


Distance learning takeaways

Consensus among teachers was that the technology was eye-opening and helpful, but not without challenges.

“The learning that occurred this time gave me the lens of looking from a student’s perspective. What does the technology look like? How does it play out for you to have students work together when they’re remote?” says Denise Young, a teacher in the Blue Valley School District who has attended every EMI since it first arrived in Kansas City in 2016. Because she didn’t have an iPad and stylus at her disposal, writing on Limnu boards with a trackball mouse was difficult. “I’m looking at it from the standpoint of my classroom. What is it going to look like if I use this technology? What do I need to have available for my students?” After teaching asynchronously this spring, Young was interested to see breakout rooms in action, but says they can’t entirely replace the think-pair-share approach to problem solving. Nevertheless, like the other participants, Young expressed gratitude to both the PEA instructors and the anonymous donors supporting EMI.

“I learned a lot for my students, because ultimately that’s why I do what I do—it’s for them,” she says.

Exeter’s Labes says she, too, has plenty to reflect on.

“It made me think about the curriculum in a slightly different way, and how the problems fit together,” she says. “The four days always pass quickly, and it’s disappointing when it’s over—you’re like, ‘Wait, wait, I want to do another day!’”