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David Mitchell: the singing mathematician: math and Christian education become fun when you learn them through singing.

Why is it that kids can reel off 50 advertising jingles or three albums of The Tragically Hip lyrics, yet they cannot recall yesterday's math lesson?

Dave Mitchell has the answer. He's the head of mathematics at Cameron Heights Collegiate in Kitchener, Ontario. He teaches grades 9, 10 and 13 using some unconventional teaching methods. When someone cannot remember a rule in mathematics, he breaks out into song.

"It helps people remember," he explains. "Kids have a real problem with `memorization' but they can remember baseball statistics or the lyrics to pop songs without any trouble."

So, rather than trying to change the kids, Dave changed his teaching techniques. When his students have trouble remembering what to do with a fraction, he launches into his fraction rap:

A fraction is a division

So you don't have to make a decision

You just take the numerator

And divide by the denominator

And then sooner or later

You get a repeater or terminator

'Cause a fraction is a division

So you don't have to make a decision!

When he teaches the rules of circles, Dave sings: "Pi r squared sounds like area to me; when I need a circumference, I'll just use pi d."

Or division: "Never divide by zero, if you do you will be sad, getting a crazy answer, making your report look bad" (to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer").

"I've been involved in song-writing since high school," Dave comments. "It's natural to use my musical ability in other contexts. When [the students] don't know me, they wonder what this guy is doing; but, soon, we establish a rapport."

Dave is also in demand on the morning announcements at his school. He produces announcements for various clubs, all set to catchy tunes: "Come on, come on, come on, Descartes" ("Twist and Shout"); "Math league, there's a practice for math league" ("Memories" from the musical Cuts); "Wednesday morning: it is time, it's Pascal, Cayley, Fermat time" ("William Tell Overture"); and "I see nouns and verbs, adjectives, too ... I see my teacher-mentor, in the writing centre, and I think to myself, these are wonderful words" ("What a Wonderful World").

Because of his teaching techniques, Dave won the 1994 Stewart Award for Teacher Excellence, the most prestigious award given to a secondary school teacher in Waterloo County. But Dave's talents aren't limited to teaching. He performed a puppet show for teachers to liven up a staff meeting. He put the Lion's Club treasurer's report to music and presented it to the annual meeting of the Lion's Club. And he won an Ontario Cable Television producers' award for excellence in programming for his one-time show How Do You Do That?

In co-operation with Rev. Bill Lamont, Dave writes songs and puppet shows for St. Andrew's Church in Kitchener. He put the Ten Commandments and the books of the Bible to music ("Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, spread the gospel, pass it on!"); wrote songs for an Adam and Eve puppet show; and created a tape, Today's the Day to Start, a collection of songs for use in Christian education.

With his wife, Heather, Dave runs a part-time business called A Song for You. They write and sing personalized songs for weddings, anniversaries or any other special occasion. To date, they have written over 350 personalized songs set to original keyboard melodies in styles which range from calypso to country.

But Dave insists that no matter how big his business grows, it will always be a sideline. Teaching is his real love. "When a teacher enjoys and appreciates the students as human beings, it's a lot of fun," he says. "Being a fair and decent person sets an example. Most of the time, teaching is very enjoyable."

Lately, however, with the de-streaming of Grade 9 in Ontario, Dave has found teaching more difficult. "Grade 9 seems to be a difficult year," he explains. "Especially since de-streaming, it's been a real problem from a motivational standpoint. Even with techniques like music and rap, it's a struggle. You can deal with it, but you end up conducting a three-ring circus."

Still, Dave says, he is thankful to have the opportunity to work with young people and to be a positive influence. At present, he is working on an album of math songs and activities that could be used for students of Grade 8 level and up, trying to motivate them to learn. His love of music and math comes through in every verse. Like this one to the tune of "American Pie":

Why, why, don't you learn about pi,

Get ecstatic 'bout quadratics and let calculus fly,

Take a swing of trig and you will be on a high

Singin' this'll be the day that I tried,

This'll be the day that I tried.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Presbyterian Record
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kathy Cawsey
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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