Bruce White - Legacy of Excellence
Astronaut Steve MacLean recalls Maurice Rodrigue and Nan Wedderspoon
When students have their chance to be part of the legendary team at Vincent Massey Secondary School in the Greater Essex district, they know they have to be ready. Every student who wants to make the team knows the drill:
Like any good coach, White built his legacy on fundamentals: a clear system, lots of practice, skills development, a culture of winning, tough love, an excellent coaching staff and realizing talent – his team includes only enriched students.
He's strict and tough – offering little praise. A correct answer usually receives a silent nod. The odd “good” really means something, even to Grade 9s who arrive already familiar with White's reputation.
In these technological times, White and his colleagues have also kept it simple. His preferred tools are blackboard and chalk. White teaches enriched mathematics through problem solving.
When students enter the classroom, they immediately put homework problems on the board. When they get stuck, White guides them with questions and suggestions: “What is the question asking you? … What does it mean? … What can you do? … Break it down … Think about the math and the process, not which theory to apply … Use simple math; make it less, not more complicated.”
In time, students will begin asking themselves these questions – solving complex problems and developing the skills and confidence to present their solutions in front of their peers, giving detailed answers that reveal any errors or flaws in logic.
White focuses on process.
“You love your calculator, don't you?” White asks Mark, a Grade 9 boy, as they go through his answer at the board.
Mark nods hesitantly.
“You're lucky. You got the right answer for the wrong reason.” After pointing out Mark's error, he asks him to solve the problem again, without a calculator.
It may seem a bit intimidating but it's a rich, challenging learning environment that these students thrive on. Using simple math and rewarding success makes it easier. The students applaud when a classmate finishes at the board.
Then White adds real value: “When you see a question like this on your Pascal contest – and you will – think about what you know first. Use factoring to break it down. Try not to make it so complicated. That's usually where you make careless mistakes.”
White sees tremendous value in exposing strong students to mathematical concepts and ideas and then developing their problem-solving skills by having them tackle complex questions.
“He has a commitment and passion for unleashing students' potential when he sees ability,” says Massey's principal Elver Peruzzo. “Goal-oriented students flourish. Parents and students – not just at Massey but throughout the district – are lucky to have him.”
The second critical element of White's system is competition. All of Massey's enriched math students must participate in math contests throughout the year. This year there were 28 contests. Not all are mandatory but most students, especially the seniors, write them all. For several, students must compete just to be eligible to write them.
On this day enriched students throughout the school are writing the fourth of the year's six Canadian National Math League contests. It's an open contest and students from all grades are keen to participate, even juniors. Like many contests it takes place at lunchtime, never during class time. Massey needs six perfect results to submit scores to the contest and kids crowd around their teachers to see their marks. Towards the end of the final lunch period a collective sigh is heard as a girl in Grade 10 gets the sixth perfect mark.
The hallway walls of the math department are lined with hundreds of awards and certificates, most accompanied by framed photos of prize-winning students and their teachers. White has built a strong winning tradition at Massey, and his students and colleagues are determined to maintain it.
The prizes lining the math hallway are one part of the Massey math tradition. Another is the school's awards ceremonies. When he arrived at Massey in 1986, White insisted that math students be recognized for their success at ceremonies just like those celebrating the accomplishments of athletes.
In the club
The other critical element of White's system is extracurricular math. For many years he has run Monday, Wednesday and Sunday math clubs. On Monday and Wednesday nights, parents from the surrounding middle- and upper-middle-class neighbourhoods pay $70 to enrol their children in problem-solving sessions led by White. The money helps cover the costs of the school's participation in math contests each year.
Twice a week, from 7 to 10 PM, nearly 200 students pack the cafeteria to work with White. Elementary students can participate if they are deemed suitable, and students from other district high schools are also welcome.
It's fascinating to watch a small Grade 7 boy confidently explaining to a large group of much bigger teenagers how he solved a complex problem. He's really looking forward to coming to Massey in Grade 9. White's reputation for developing excellent math students is well known around Windsor and parents often come to his door asking if their children can join his clubs.
Peter Wen is part of the Monday night group. “Mr. White teaches us complex equations, yet he makes them simple by using techniques we already know,” says this bright Grade 9 student. “He goes way beyond the basics we learn in math class.”
Wen and his friend Yang Zeng claim that White has actually affected housing prices in the neighborhood. Zeng's own family moved to the area when he was in elementary school so he could attend Massey. The boys claim that White's reputation is known all the way to Hong Kong.
Students do not have to be formally identified as gifted to get into the program; they just have to have a teacher's recommendation. But for really exceptional students White runs Sunday math. Here's an excerpt from a student blog on the Windsor Math website:
For many years, White has also run two-week summer math camps as well as March break and Christmas math camps for exceptional students. There seems to be no limit to the mathematical challenges he will provide. Even now that he's retired, the camps continue.
White's style extends beyond the school and its contest results. When Massey grads answer a question in their first-year math classes at the University of Windsor or Waterloo, their professors have been known to tell them, “Say hi to Mr. White.”
How do they know? White believes that it's how his former students think about problems, combined with their skill level and confidence in class, that sets them apart.
The University of Windsor awarded him an honourary doctorate for his contributions to students and learning. The University of Waterloo awarded him the Descartes Award for Outstanding Teaching in High School Mathematics.
White keeps a full schedule. He spends much of his time at Massey but also works with teachers and students in elementary and secondary schools throughout the board. He continues to spend one period a week in each enriched math class at Massey, preparing students for contests. He reckons that Massey lies somewhere in the top 20 schools in North America – public and private.
Chris Ing is one of Massey's bright young math teachers, determined to maintain Massey's mathematical traditions. Now in his third year, he is also a former student: he appears in the hall pictures with the awards he won.
Ing is a part of the legacy – past, present and future. Now teaching many of the enriched math classes, including senior calculus, Ing credits White and his math department colleagues for his own decision to become a teacher. He could easily be making more money in another profession. “I loved being in this environment as a student and I love these kids and working in here now.”
White has been a mentor to Ing since he joined the Massey staff, and it's fascinating to watch them both teach. There are many similarities, including the language they use, the way they push students at the chalkboard and the links they make to upcoming and past contests. This pupil has learned well.
Many of the classes run by White's younger colleagues are not as quiet and regimented as his were, but he admires what he sees.
“They are better teachers than I was at their age,” he says, praising their creativity, preparation and understanding of enriched students. “It took me years to figure out that these kids can't sit in rows and be told what to do. They need to be let go to engage and apply the math they are learning. Teaching is an art form; it's not a science.”
“Good teachers have the confidence to let kids struggle and make mistakes,” says White. “They concentrate on teaching the process, not just on finding the right answer.”
And he notes that in mathematics this is hard to do if a teacher has minimal math background.
Marilyn Burns, the highly regarded American author, teacher and teacher educator believes that many elementary teachers are uncomfortable teaching math. “Teachers are creative and excited when they teach reading and language arts, but the classroom often gets very serious at math time,” writes Burns in an article in ENC Focus Magazine, The NCTM Standards: 2005 (available on line at enc.org).
White would agree, which is why he continues to run math workshops for Intermediate teachers. They are always well attended. He also lobbies these teachers to let their best math students write the Grade 9 math contests, saying, “The sooner they start competing, the stronger math students they will become.”
Now in his second year of retirement, Bruce White shows no sign of slowing down. He claims that his current status with the board is perfect. “It allows me to work with kids, teachers and math and not do any marking.”
Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence
The Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence recognize outstanding teachers who instil in their students a love of learning and help them excel and build successful futures. The awards are given annually to teachers who have achieved outstanding results with students, inspired them to learn and continue learning and equipped them with the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in our changing society and knowledge-based economy.
For more information or to nominate someone, visit pma-ppm.ic.gc.ca.