Exemplary Teacher

Duncan McIntyre

and his students live in a world where math, fun and success meet

Ten-year teaching veteran Duncan McIntyre was honoured in 2006 with a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. His unconventional teaching style and innovative techniques capture students’ attention and inspire them to think about mathematics in new ways.

“Math is like Splenda. It’s sweet with no calories.”

“It’s homefun, not homework.”

“Eat. Sleep. Math.”

“Fractions sounds like Friends. And they are.”

“Solving equations is like an onion. You have to gently peel away one layer at a time to get to the middle – the solution. No, wait. Onions are yucky and make you cry. Solving equations is like a wonderful candy with a creamy yummy centre. They’re both delicious and sweet.”

In Duncan McIntyre’s classroom, lessons are not just math for math’s sake. They draw from real-world applications, they provide solid preparation for postsecondary studies and work, and they are filled with fun, games and enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm and invention have been themes for McIntyre since he began his teaching career 10 years ago in Haiti.

“All I had was a chalkboard and I had to engage the kids and keep their attention. It was a great place to develop my skills and learn how to connect with kids.”

Since his return to Canada, he has taught at Anderson Collegiate and Vocational Institute in the Durham DSB, where he became head of math four years ago. He loves his work and says there is nowhere he’d rather be than with his students in his portable. And he wants those students to feel the same.

“We’re lucky to have him at Anderson,” says Principal John Morrison. “Duncan is engaging, creative and hard working. He’s a role model for teachers and students. The kids have fun but they learn math too.”

Let the fun begin

While delivering lessons, McIntyre laughs and jokes, and even sings and dances. He is always ready with a quip or a suggestion to reinforce the idea that math is fun.

“We celebrate Valentine’s Day with love and hearts because we love math and it’s one month until Pi Day – that’s 3/14, of course.”

McIntyre believes it’s his responsibility to keep his students entertained and to provide valuable learning experience. He wants them to share his belief that math is not drudgery – it’s fun and it’s useful.

“This is my 75 minutes with them every day. It’s my job to ensure they have a positive experience and feel that there’s no place they’d rather be,” says McIntyre. His enthusiasm is contagious. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t work going on.

Drill for success

McIntyre begins all Grade 9 and 10 classes – basic, applied and academic – with what he calls strip quizzes.

He gives each student a strip of paper with 25 multiplication questions written on it. At the beginning of the semester, they have 90 seconds to complete the questions. Most kids start out doing well. Each week he subtracts five seconds until there are just 25 seconds to complete 25 questions.

“It’s excellent drill and practice,” says McIntyre. “These kids need to develop their mental math skills. They need confidence that they can do math, and this really helps.” All students improve in both speed and accuracy as the semester progresses.

The drill is about more than memorizing times tables. It helps students focus on math at the start of each class and encourages them to be on time.

“It’s my job to ensure they have a positive experience and feel that there’s no place they’d rather be.”

It doesn’t take long for the inevitable question to come up: “Why do we have to do this every day?”

McIntyre answers smoothly: “So when you’re working part-time at Home Depot and a customer asks you how much for a handful of nails or some two-by-fours, you’ll know the answer. It’s practical math that’s good for you.”

Every Friday, students get a summary of their scores for the week. They tally them, find the average and mean scores, and then graph their marks for the week as a line or bar chart – thus tracking their own weekly progress.

See it, write it

Like many teachers, McIntyre uses an overhead projector to introduce new concepts. He knows that many students are weak note-takers though, and wants to make sure their notebooks are both correct and complete. So he also provides fill-in-the-blank handouts. He explains a concept, then engages students in questions and answers. And using the overhead, everyone fills in the blanks together.

Finally, students do a few practice problems on their own. McIntyre reviews and corrects these to make sure the concepts have been understood.

McIntyre builds variety into his lessons. A lecture is usually followed by a fun, student-centred activity that applies the concepts just taught.

One day, McIntyre shows his Grade 10 class how to do equations, and then students work in pairs to apply the theory. He gives each pair 16 squares of paper. Equations with an unknown, such as 2x – 7 = 9, are printed along two edges of each five-by-five-centimetre square. On the other two edges are the solutions, such as x = 8. Letters appear in the centres of the squares.

The pairs of students work together – arranging their squares in four rows of four so that a problem along one side of a square aligns with its corresponding answer on the square next to it. When everything is arranged correctly, the grid of 16 squares spells out a message: “Math is sweeter than candy.”

McIntyre circulates around the room, checking progress and offering help where it’s needed. Students talk among themselves, helping each other, and when they’re done, they are ready to start on their homefun. Math is never work; it’s always fun in Mr. McIntyre’s world.

Playing store

McIntyre’s Grade 9 basic essentials class spends several periods learning about running a store. Students fill in order forms, review multiplication and addition they will need to get totals, and learn how to calculate percentages for taxes. They become skilled at handling money and making change. Working in small groups, they decorate store fronts and price their wares and after several busy days they are ready to welcome customers and apply their skills.

Administrators and other teachers armed with fake money come to shop and place their orders. Students do their thing. Some are flustered and some make mistakes. McIntyre, a Grade 12 peer helper and two EAs help the students to make their sales and, at the end of 30 minutes of busy selling, to balance their cash.

Once the classroom has been tidied up, students sit down with McIntyre, who leads a reflective discussion. He asks them how they felt selling. Some talk about the stress of trying to be accurate when taking orders, calculating totals and making change. But they had fun too.

“It’s better than you teaching us,” a student laughs.


McIntyre and students work out the problem together.

At one point McIntyre gently instructs his students to “Think about these next two questions in your head. Don’t raise your hands or say your answers out loud. Just think: What was easier than you expected? and What was harder than you expected? Think just in your own head because I may ask you.”

McIntyre has seen that students respond when they’re given real-life applications for what they are learning. It makes math real for them and it builds confidence.

“When you get a job, you’ll already have an idea of what you need to do to work in a store or run a cash register,” he tells them. “Because you’ll already know what to do, you’ll be confident and you’ll be successful. There’s nothing to be afraid of because you’ve already practised.”

Real world, real fun

McIntyre looks for real-world and fun activities for basic, applied and academic classes at all grade levels.

For senior academic data-management students it is Casino Day. Students from across the school learn the odds and probabilities of winning while they play games of chance at the student-built casino.

“Senior students are focused on university and achieving high marks,” says McIntyre. “But they still want to relax and have fun.” Casino Day allows for fun and embraces many different learning activities.

“Students learn to apply advanced theory and they have to communicate with non-mathematical peers and speak at an appropriate level.”

“Duncan is a math cheerleader,” says Doug Craven, who teaches communication technology and runs Anderson’s morning-announcements radio show with McIntyre.

“He really gets kids excited about math because he’s so excited himself. He gives high-fives in the hallways saying, ‘Let’s math it up!’ The kids love it. He’s dynamic, engaging and he cares about them. Kids come first, not math.”

Grade 10 students Heather and Laminatu agree.

“He teaches math so we understand it. He doesn’t get impatient. He sings, dances, whatever it takes for us to understand and remember.”

“He doesn’t get frustrated if we don’t get something,” adds Mahadeo, another Grade 10 student. “He just keeps explaining it until we all get it. He doesn’t give up on us.”

McIntyre says the Grade 10 applied class is his favourite class to teach.

“I can make such strides with these kids. Most don’t like math, some are afraid of it and many have weak skills. I want to help them overcome all that. Besides, they’re a real fun group to teach.”

Be yourself

McIntyre works hard to inspire enthusiasm, but his advice for fellow teachers includes a caution as well as encouragement.

“Be yourself. Don’t teach in a style that’s not you. Kids will know if you’re faking it and they will resist.

“Enjoy every minute with your students because teaching really is the best career. Don’t expect every day to be perfect. It takes time to develop engaging and effective activities. Take your time and get it right.”

McIntyre doesn’t hesitate to share credit with his colleagues.

“It’s not me alone,” he explains. “I see my colleagues’ creativity, their discipline, their compassion, the way they deal calmly with stressed or reluctant students and I’m so impressed. They all have different strengths and I am constantly learning from all of them.”

So what’s the future of McIntyre’s wonderful world of math? “This is the best place to come to work every day and I look forward to my next 10 years in this portable.”

Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence

The Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence honour outstanding and innovative elementary and secondary school teachers in all disciplines who better equip their students with the skills they need to meet the challenges of a 21st-century society and economy.

For more information about the program, visit www.pma-ppm.gc.ca.

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