Patrick A. Smith

Bringing it back to Reserve

NEWS ARTICLE from The Hudson Monthly, 1-1-08, by Michele Kisthardt RPC Photos / Michael K. Dakota

``Teacher brings lessons on learning back to the classroom

In 1993, Western Reserve Academy instructor Pat Smith earned the honor of being the youngest faculty member to receive a sabbatical. Now, more than a decade later, Smith has earned another distinction - he received a second sabbatical, a feat shared by only one other faculty member in the history of the school.

During his year away from WRA as the John W. Hallowell Sabbatical recipient, Smith completed a master's degree in education at Harvard University. He participated in the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) program.

An Ohio native Smith grew up in Avon, Ohio, and graduated with a degree in biology from Oberlin College, where he played football. Upon graduation, Smith joined Western Reserve Academy where, over the years, he has taught biology, zoology, botany, chemistry, pre-calculus and calculus.

In his 24th year teaching at WRA, Smith currently instructs biology and botany and serves as assistant to the director of college guidance. At press time, he was busy helping seniors meet November application for admission deadlines. Once the senior admission process is well under way, he will meet with and guide juniors through the college search process. In addition to his teaching and counseling duties, he coaches cross country and track and field.

Smith lives in a faculty residence on Baldwin Street, and, according to his biography on the school's Web site, www.wra.net/academics/facultybio.cfm?staffid=69
his home is recognized for its "eye-catching garden" during the spring and summer months.

While gardening is one of Smith's many hobbies, he maintains scuba diving is his biggest passion. He's taken at least six groups of WRA students on trips at the end of the school year, diving in such locales as the Caymans, Honduras, Dominica and Yucatan Peninsula. Add hunting, fishing, and running to his list of hobbies, and, you can see that Smith makes the most of his limited free time.

Lessons learned on sabbatical

During his first sabbatical in 1993 to 1994, Smith completed research toward his first master's degree, examining the feeding habits of Caribbean reef fish on turtle grass in the back reef in Discovery Bay, Jamaica. His biological research interests include the long-spined sea urchin in the Caribbean reef ecosystem and the use of urchin relocation projects to promote reef recovery.

When he began researching graduate programs for his second sabbatical, Smith said he looked at programs at Columbia, Vanderbilt, Boston College, and Ohio State before honing in on the program at Harvard. "It's really tailor made. It's a program in the biology of learning. I'm a biologist and teacher of 24 years, and I'm genuinely interested in what goes on up here," says Smith pointing to his head.

"The Harvard program is the only one in the country that addresses the biology of learning. Other programs are getting started across the country, but they're all modeling Harvard's Mind Brain & Education program," says Smith, who notes that the MBE program seems to attract students who are a little more analytical and research-oriented than typical educators.

From the perspective of psychology, neuroscience, genetics, and education, students in the program examine four central topics - literacy, numeracy, emotions/motivation, and conceptual change. The core course in the program is "Cognitive Development, Education and the Brain." The full-year course sought to engage students in bridging the gap between discoveries and practice in three fields - neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education.

Smith provides a simple explanation of how the new research in neuroscience can be used: "Say I'm teaching biology, and I deliver a lecture in a certain method. We now have the ability to analyze a student's brain images to determine the most effective way to reach the student. Smith says use of these findings began with children with learning disabilities, but now educators are discovering how they can apply this knowledge to a greater percentage of students.

Researching single-gender learning

As part of his studies, Smith conducted research at the Groton School, studying students' attitude toward learning mathematics in mixed-gender versus single-gender algebra II classrooms. An hour and a half from Boston, Groton is a five-year college preparatory, coeducational, boarding school, similar to WRA in size and mission.

"Groton saw a drop off in upper level math among girls and sought out a way to make algebra II more inviting," explains Smith. "Beginning in 1996, they began offering single-gender algebra II classes. Due to a scheduling snafu, the school was unable to offer the single-gender classes in prior years and boys and girls who were currently attending co-ed algebra II classes."

His research, titled Leveling the Field: Single-Sex Mathematics Classrooms and Attitudes Toward Learning, found that "female students who participate in single-gender math classrooms possess a more positive attitude toward learning math than those female students who participate in coeducational classrooms."

Further, he found that "the majority of female students surveyed felt that they were more comfortable, more confident, and more supported in the single-sex classes." But what surprised Smith was that it appeared that male students showed an even stronger preference than female students did for single-sex algebra II classes.

Groton administrators, says Smith, said they were also surprised by some of the findings and didn't relize how much students appreciated that setting. "It gave students a safe place to learn - one where they felt cognitively, intellectually safe," explains Smith.

"Were teachers teaching the subject differently to each sex?" pondered Smith during his research. A Groton teacher who taught the seperate class for boys and girls shared this explanation with Smith, "We start at the same place and end at the same place, but along the way, we take a slightly different route."

Research in single gender classes within a co-ed setting is more widely accepted and practiced in the United Kingdom and Australia, according to Smith. He includes findings from studies in those countries in his research paper.

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Bringing it back to Reserve

What plans does Smith have to incorporate his research into the curriculum at WRA? "I'm not convinced that WRA needs to do this [single-gender classrooms]," says Smith, adding that girls at WRA seem to have equal representation in the upper-level math and science classes.

"That's what is unique about WRA, what really sets it apart is that it's a 'safe' place to learn. It's an inviting environment with well-rounded students who enjoy learning, competing athletically, performing on stage - and sometimes all three of those," says Smith.

For his part, Smith brought to Harvard the perspective of an experienced math and science teacher from an independent school. "The majority of the program participants were from public schools or fresh out of an undergraduate program. Also, many of them came from the humanities."

Back at school, Smith says his focus is on continuing to learn what practice makes for the best learning. "I want to know what practices promote deep understanding. I want to be able to inform colleagues how we can make learning 'stick'," says Smith, adding, "It all boils down to finding a type of learning that is lasting."

Though Smith says he thoroughly enjoyed adopting Combridge as his home for a year - "a place where you never run out of things to do" - he's pleased to settle back into life in Hudson. He reflects on his time away, "I missed interacting with great young people. I missed being in the classroom and spending afternoons on the athletic fields. In Boston, I was the student."

Making math, science fun

Pat Smith comes from a family of educators. His mother is a retired math teacher. His sister chairs the language department at Avon High School and his brother-in-law teaches history in Elyria.

What tips does Smith offer to parents to keep their children interested in math and science? Don't reinforce stereotypes. Smith says, "I cringe when I hear an adult say 'Girls don't do math.'"

Read to your children. Engage them in mathematics during conversation. Bring questions like, "How many flowers did you pick today?" and "If you gave me half, how many would you have left?" into everyday conversations. Play games with your children. It doesn't have to be formal, shared Smith. Games like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders are great ways to introduce numeracy to children.''

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