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Alumni Profiles - Chance Nalley

Mathematics mastery

Name: Chance Nalley
Major: Mathematics B.A. and secondary education B.S.
Hometown: Perham, Maine
Graduation year: 2004
Current position: Sixth- and seventh-grade mathematics teacher at Manhattan Middle School for Scientific Inquiry, New York City
Education after UMaine: Columbia University, M.A. and M.S. in mathematics education

What brought you to New York?
I am a minority and I grew up with only my father to relate to in regard to culture and acceptance and what it is like to be different. Then, while studying at UMaine, I read a research paper that correlated student success with having at least one teacher/role model of the same ethnicity. Moving to a diverse city seemed like an opportunity for me to learn and help urban minority students. The realization of this vision was made possible by Associate Dean O.J. Logue, who had a summer program, The Future Teachers Academy, which brought high school students from New York and Maine together at UMaine. He made arrangements for me to start at a school in the Bronx and everything played out well.

Tell us about the math skills curriculum you developed:
After a few years of teaching and adding two graduate degrees to my experience, I decided I was going to deal with what virtually every mathematics teacher already knows: that there aren’t any perfect mathematics textbooks, and as a sequential curriculum, everything in existence becomes even more devalued. We have a saying in the middle schools: “Seventh grade is sixth grade only louder, and the relation between eighth grade and seventh grade is no different.” Each year, most students review previously learned topics with more difficult problems or deeper explorations. Only a handful of new topics are introduced each year.

I decided to view grades six through eight as a singular curriculum that started where fifth grade left off, and would logically and sequentially lead to rigorous courses in algebra and geometry. I reviewed the curricula and textbooks of over a dozen publishers, and many that were no longer in print, to create a scope and sequence that left nothing out. However, I’m not perfect and every year I make adjustments and add or modify the topics. The goal is to explore each topic in great depth, from the introduction through the mechanics, then the details and applications, to be sure that each student masters the skill, and many also have an appreciation for it as well.

The “mastery” idea really sets my work apart from that of others. I created individual student checklists to monitor that. Each week, students choose which topics they want to prove they have mastered and take quizzes focused on them. If a student scores 80 percent or better on the objective quiz, then the objective is checked off on his or her individual checklist, which is meant to follow him or her until EVERY objective is mastered. Traditional curriculum ends in unit exams that cover many objectives; whether a student passes, fails or doesn’t understand some objectives, he or she still moves on with the hope that he or she will learn it next year. Mathematics in the middle school is cumulative by nature. Not understanding an objective inhibits students’ future ability to learn other objectives. I want my students to be FULLY prepared for algebra, geometry and any other course they take in the future.

There are computer programs that take this individual student monitoring and objective mastery approach; however, they all treat grades six, seven and eight separately, rather than as a middle school math experience.

What is the outcome? Do you feel like the students are better prepared now?
First, the students know that they are held accountable and that completing their objectives list is their mission. It fosters an entirely different frame of mind than “THIS week’s test” does. Over the past three years, all of my students have significantly out-scored the city and state averages on standardized tests, even though we don’t prepare for them directly. One hundred percent of my students were ready for algebra at the beginning of eighth grade and all of them passed the New York State Regents Exam in algebra at the end of the year for high school credit.

I moved to a new school this year, and my students have all gone on to high school.  Many have dispersed to different high schools in the city. I hear back frequently from them or their parents, and always with the same comments: They are so well-prepared that they are bored. Some of my students have gone on to the top specialized high schools in NYC and others have gone on to private schools. Some have been placed in junior and senior mathematics classes to provide them with a rigorous learning experience.

Tell us about the honors and awards you received as a result of your work:
In 2008 I received the Manhattan Blackboard Award for Mathematics Teaching and also received a Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. I am very proud to be part of Math for America, where I can work with other talented and dedicated mathematics educators and receive top-quality professional development. In 2010, I was recognized by Kappa Delta Pi as a Teacher of Honor.

How did UMaine prepare you for this career?
UMaine has caring and dedicated professors who make good role models for quality teaching. I was a lost soul that found direction and guidance at UMaine. When I work with student teachers from other schools, including Columbia University’s Teachers College, they do not feel nearly as prepared as I did after being trained at UMaine. I teach them and show them the many valuable ideas I learned at the University of Maine and they wonder why they weren’t introduced to these ideas in their college classes. I would not trade my UMaine experience and education for any other. People frequently ask me how I came to teach the way that I do, and I simply reply, “I’m from Maine!”

How has the field changed since you left UMaine?
We are rapidly learning that some of the educational reforms that have taken place nationally didn’t work and now we have entered a new era of reforms. Long-term studies have found no significant difference in the achievement of students who use a traditional or reform mathematics curriculum.

Another accidental transformation in New York City is a result of the down economy.  Many people with great mathematical talent are entering teaching after losing their jobs in financial institutions and on Wall Street. This is a great opportunity to focus on teaching pedagogy to people who are already masters of mathematics and can convey its real uses and applications firsthand.

When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?
I actually had two favorite places. One was the engineering office (I started in engineering at UMaine) where I would visit Doreen Vaillancourt and Laurie Fullerton for my daily dose of sunshine. The other was the Union Coffee Shop on the top floor, which was turned into the Career Center after the Union expansion. I miss that coffee shop.  I wrote papers, met with groups for projects and even had a couple of dates there.

Most memorable UMaine moment?
There is no Most Memorable. My experience at UMaine was like no other. I worked with great people, made lifelong friendships, and learned from incredible people. I was the first openly gay president of my fraternity, was president of Wilde Stein, won the Elizabeth Morris Peacemaker Award, was a student senator and an uncountable number of other things. AND WE ALL WON A HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP! UMaine shaped me into the adult I have been ever since.

While in Orono, I spent too much time:

Procrastinating. I even failed some classes and really needed to learn to focus. I graduated with 186 credits. I loved exploring everything, but for a period I couldn’t focus on anything.

Favorite professor or mentor?
All of my professors were personable, knowledegeable, and challenged me to be a better person, not just student. They all treated me like an individual who mattered and that is what makes UMaine the best. I absolutely loved Rick Sayles and Mike Boyle in mechanical engineering, and John Field, Bruce Segee and Fred Irons in electrical engineering, and Tod Shockey in the Mathematics Department and Bob Whelan in the English Department. If I can only choose a single favorite though, it was and still is Associate Dean O.J. Logue. This man literally saved me. When I met him, I lacked direction and was about to be dismissed from the university. He took me into the College of Education and Human Development, gave me a purpose, became a friend and set me up for my career.  He is even the reason I went to Columbia for grad school. We are still close friends and he attended my wedding last year in NYC.

Class that nearly did you in?
Many. Not because of the class itself, but because I had severe attention problems. I was evaluated at the Counseling Center by professionals through the help of O.J. Logue and learned that I had severe attention-deficit disorder and was in the lowest percentile for reading speed. After that, the staff at UMaine provided me the support I needed to be successful. My experience with learning disabilities has helped me become the teacher I am today and recognize that we all learn differently, but that we all can learn.

How did your UMaine experience shape who you are now?
I spent more time at the University of Maine than typical students. I met other minorities there, other gay and bisexual people there, and became comfortable and confident with my self-identity there. If it were not for my UMaine experience and education, I would be a mere shadow of who I have become.

Best UMaine tradition?
Well, it was Bumstock until the field became a parking lot and people got fenced in.  That definitely took out the charm. Next best tradition is definitely UMaine Hockey. GO BLACK BEARS!

If I knew then what I know now, I would have …
I would have done it all over again, but without ever taking out a college loan. Debt is no fun, especially in a down economy.

Why UMaine?
I had participated in the Young Scholars Program in Electrical Engineering during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school and liked my brief UMaine experience. I was accepted to a lot of universities out of high school and I even prepared to go somewhere else. Ultimately, it was my last choice, but it had one advantage over all of the other schools — it was the closest one to my dad. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Actually, my husband is the best choice I ever made.

How does UMaine continue to influence your life?

My best friends are all from UMaine, though we have spread out across the country. My godson is the son of a UMaine grad and I performed the wedding of two of my friends, both UMaine grads. We all keep connected and we all loved our experience.

Recently, I was on campus during Diversity/Coming Out Week and I spoke at a mathematics senior seminar, as well about urban teaching. I have encouraged some of my students to go to UMaine because I know they need the experience just like I did. I also took 30 of my students to UMaine for a week to explore mathematics, science and engineering and the wilderness. I love Maine and will probably return sooner than later.  When my students tell me they want to go to NYU or Harvard, I ask if they have considered a state school, particularly the University of Maine.

Image Description: Chance Nalley

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