Q&A with Experienced Coach Brittany Koppen

Q&A

Brittany Koppen is an experienced MathCounts coach and head coach and has assisted with the annual MathCounts tournament at UGA. She is a math education major and an aspiring middle school teacher.

We spoke with Brittany to gather some of her advice and insights for working with our young mathletes. Check out what she had to say below!

Do you have any suggestions for working with students of different grades/math levels at the same time?
It can be tough sometimes when students are in different grades or levels. You’d be surprised however to know that this is actually a great thing. The more advanced students help the younger students or students that need help. They end up working in a team and helping each other. I would say the best thing to do is to help those who need it and challenge those of the higher grade or level at the same time. You can do this by asking them how they found their answer and if they can draw a picture/show their work of how they found it.

I have a student who seems uninterested in attending MathCounts. Any suggests on how to motivate/excite them?
I think if that point comes where even one student is not excited, then it is time to mix things up. It is time to bring in games, candy, prizes, fun math videos, etc. that can get the students pumped up! These students are choosing to take time out of their day to work on challenging math problems. We should encourage students to do it and others to continue to do it by making it worth their time. You want to make sure that all of the kids are super excited for the next Mathcounts session as the current session is ending.

What should coaches know about where middle schoolers are developmentally? Are there certain skills that may be harder for them    to learn or understand?
It is hard to tell where students are with math in their grade level because every school does things differently. This is where I would say it would be very beneficial to talk to a teacher at that school who instructs these students to see what level he or she believes they are performing at. If you can get a sense of what kind of math they have seen before, you can work on this in the beginning and add more challenging math on as the semester goes on.

Often, students try to do problems purely in their heads and don’t like writing things down, even if it may help with accuracy. Any advice for helping them put pen to paper?
Pen and paper can be incredibly boring as we all know. Just because these students are in school doesn’t mean that we can’t make this time more exciting than white wide-ruled paper and a mechanical pencil. To really step it up a notch, ask the teachers at the school you are at to borrow the individual dry erase boards and markers. STUDENTS LOVE THESE. This way they are continuing to write on one surface, can easily draw, and can erase their work! Most of these problems students are working on take trial and error. By being able to erase so easily, students won’t mind starting over and trying a new method to solve their problems. They also are very proud when they get the correct answer. You can suggest that when they believe they have the right answer to raise the board up as high as they can so you can come around and check it!

Do you have any math education resources you recommend?
Khan Academy online math videos are incredibly helpful. This man goes step by step to help students solve math problems they have on most, if not all, math topics. I also am a big fan of a few FREE math apps that are on iPads and on the computer. These apps could be pulled up and shown on a projector screen or on students personal computers if they have those. Those apps/websites include: Socrative, Kahoot, educreations, Think Through Math, and Istation. All of these can be used for instruction which is another way to get students away from strictly pen and paper.

Sometimes my method for solving a problem varies from that of my student. If the way I use is simpler, should I try to teach it, or is it better to let them stick with their methods?
I would suggest letting the student keep their method if they are getting the correct answer. This is most likely the way their own teacher taught them and we want to make sure to not confuse them. If they ask for a simpler way to solve the problem because it took a long time to find the answer their way, by all means share with them!

How should I handle discipline issues? For example, any advice if one student is continually distracting a peer?
Students completely change their behavior when a coach or teacher walks by or stands next to them. This “zone of proximity” is pure magic. Once you stand next to the student that is causing the problem, they most always stop. Once you stand there for a few seconds and the behavior stops, start asking them about their work to get them back on task. You could even take a seat to work on a whole problem with them! We do have to understand though that we want this to be a fun program for students to be a part of. In saying this, I believe there is bad behavior and there is kids just being kids. We need to learn to distinguish between the two and keep the students wanting to come back for more math next week!

What is your proudest moment as a Mathcounts coach?
I would definitely say seeing my students at the Mathcounts competition in Tate was my proudest moment. These students were beyond excited to be there and were excited to see their head coach (me) there supporting them! They loved the competition and hearing them talk to me at the end of the competition about how they thought they did was awesome! They were so confident and proud of themselves.