CHATHAM, NJ - A broken snow blower forced Denis Sheeran to shovel his driveway following a heavy snowfall last winter. When he was finished, his daughter, Elizabeth, declared, "You must have moved a ton of snow."
That comment sparked a family conversation and sent Elizabeth on a quest to figure out how much snow had been removed from the driveway. It's the kind of "sudden change in environment" that can give students real-life relevance to math lessons.
That's the kind of teaching promoted in Sheeran's book, Instant Relevance: Using Today's Experiences in Tomorrow's Lessons, which has been available for a couple of weeks and has been rated Amazon's "No. 1 new release in math teaching materials" since the second day it went on sale.
Sheeran is currently the K-12 mathematics supervisor for the School District of the Chathams. He had been a math supervisor in Edison before taking the job in Chatham last year and before that a math teacher in Lake Forest, Ill.
"My bigger message is to stop teaching math and other subjects so abstractly, but instead to find an example of your life and your student’s life that is important to them right now," Sheeran said. "Students want to learn when they care about the question."
Elizabeth Sheeran, a 6th grader at the time, used formulas to convert the volume of the snow in the driveway to water volume and then converted water volume to pounds. According to her calculations, her father had removed 3 1/2 tons or 7,300 pounds of snow.
"It shows how it's not necessary to memorize formulas, those can be found easily on the internet," Sheeran said. "It's finding something of interest to the student that makes them want to use those skills."
Sheeran uses the acronym INSTANT in his book, which he considers a resource for math teachers. Sheeran breaks down INSTANT like this:
I - Infusing your life into a lesson for your students
N - Natural flow – follow the question
S - Sudden changes to your environment
T - Television and pop culture
A – Awareness of your surroundings
N – National events and crazes
T – Two or more content areas
"Some of my teachers (in Chatham) have read it on their own and given me positive feedback," Sheeran said.
Sheeran already is thinking about his next book, which will document classroom-tested methods used by teachers.