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December 12, 2007 > Above and beyond

Above and beyond

By Justine Yan

Linda Rodrigues has been a math teacher at James Logan High School in Union City for 10 years and has never been known to play it small and safe. Students in her class learn math by becoming software-using graffiti artists, break-dancers, stock traders, and most recently, novelists.

This year, Rodrigues sent her students on a new mission. During the first few days of school, she distributed the preface of a Star Trek-inspired story. The voyage of Starship Mathematica began when Rodrigues, or "Captain Rod," found a large spinning cube in her path while sailing in space. After destroying this cube, Captain Rod met an alien called Ferd, who controlled the spaceship called Ferdesis. Though Ferd was disappointed by the humans' destruction of one of his planet's "protector cubes," he offered to lead the crewmembers of Mathematica to his home, Planet Quest.

"Follow us to the planet and we will allow your people to explore our modules of Algebra to learn new and exciting ways to solve problems," said Ferd, a green-skinned turtle-like creature. In exchange, Captain Rod and her crew promised to share their unique human culture with the aliens.

Captain Rod alerted Star Fleet and the Starship Mathematica settled into orbit around this new planet to unlock its universal secrets. The quest for mathematical knowledge by two of Rodrigues' Algebra classes has been launched for more than a quarter of the school year. Since Rodrigues' first installment of the novel, she has let her students take control of the starship and what happens to the characters of the novel: Lizzie, Newt, Roxy and Miss Flegie, who are residents of Planet Quest.

For each chapter, or "module of Algebra," all students are assigned to write a chapter for the book. Each chapter of the book is tied to math concepts recently learned. The first writing assignment, for example, asked students to explain what they learned from Ferd about simplifying expressions and the order of operations, and what Ferd learned about humans. The guidelines included questions such as, "Does Lizzie have a crush on Newt?" and "Will Roxy ever stop seeing Newt as a rival?"

"The stories can't be plain math. A character can't simply solve a math equation and reach his destination. There might be trees that won't let him pass through their branches without first answering a question. The characters have distinct personalities," said Rodrigues, captain of the whole operation.

Rodrigues went on to say that this project gives an opportunity for the artists and creative-writers of the class to shine, even in a math class. She said that she is always excited to read what the students write.

For some chapters done by students, she sits down and corrects grammar violations as well. "But not so much that I've become an English teacher," she said with a laugh. The math within the stories must also be accurate.

Rodrigues is currently applying for a grant, in hopes that she can accumulate the monies to provide a color copy of the 20-chapter finished novel to each of her students. Whether or not this will become a reality, she expects to leave a chronicle of her class' journeys in the school library, and with the school board. "They don't realize it now, she said, "but I think the students will be very proud to see their writing and illustrations published."

Despite having a well of enthusiasm for mathematics, science, history, and art, Rodrigues said she sleeps well at night because she is exhausted by the end of each day. She is also the director of Hope Connections, a club dedicated to providing a helping hand to needy families.

What's even more exhausting, she said, is trying to stay one step ahead of teenagers. Rodrigues jokes with her students about "knowing all the tricks," having raised five kids herself. "It takes a lot [of effort] to get kids today motivated, because we live in a society where everything is instantaneous. It's hard for kids to focus on a problem for a long period of time. If they can't get it in 30 seconds, they quit. So I'm trying to teach perseverance. I'm teaching 'stick with it, you can do it'. You can crack the code, solve the problem."

To foster this perseverance, and this excitement for math, Rodrigues goes an extra step and tries to show her students the fun side of the subject, rather than having them just take notes on lectures. She assigns multiple lectures throughout the school year.

Upon completion of each Planet Quest chapter, a winner is chosen from each class period. The chapter written by this student will be included in the class' novel. Winners for the first two chapters were ninth graders Matthew Rivera, Sanan Chaus, Faith Pierre, and Vince Lal.

When asked where the journeys within the universe of room 527 will lead next, Captain Rod confessed, "I have no idea."

But wherever the journey takes the characters, and wherever the students take the journey, the final destination will be far above the expectations of the school, teachers, and parents. She stated that her class is just as devoted to learning the necessary math concepts as the other classes.

"Even as a student, I was outside of the box. And when I came here, I was outside of the box, so I'm not a teacher that's just into formulas." Rodrigues is always creating new things and exploring new boundaries.

"Sometimes I wear socks of two different colors just to see if my students are paying attention," she said. "They tell me I'm funny." And that is not all. Students have described her with words like "cool," "smart," "helpful," and "caring."

In class, Rodrigues also arranges PowerPoint presentations that illustrate the principles of mathematics seen in nature and daily life. She has examined the loss of hearing in concerts, pineapples, and gasoline prices, among other things.

The imaginations of many students have taken flight, and though the project will be completed by the end of the year, Rodrigues hopes that the imaginations and quest for knowledge will never be grounded.

"I always try to bring the world into the classroom," she said. But the Planet Quest project has also allowed her to bring a memorable piece of the universe to her Star Fleet.

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