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Teaching seminars add up to second career for retired math professor

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published May 13. 2013 4:00AM
Dana Jensen/The Day
Catherine Fosnot, center, of New London talks last week with Rick Campion, left, and Chancey Anderson, both of the Prodeo Academy in Minneapolis, during Fosnot's workshop teaching innovative math techniques at Port 'N Starboard at Ocean Beach Park in New London.

New London - Catherine Twomey Fosnot has traveled the United States, Canada and at times Europe to teach math teachers how to make math exciting and relevant to young students.

Now, the Norwich native is ready to come home and let the world come to her.

Fosnot, 65, retired five years ago from a 20-year career at the City College of New York and purchased a rundown home at the end of Ocean Avenue just outside the walk-in gate at Ocean Beach. She gutted the 100-year-old house, replaced a broken support beam and moved in.

"When I saw this house, I thought 'this could be perfect,'" Fosnot said earlier last week. "Ocean Beach is right across the street."

A week earlier, Fosnot launched Seminars by the Sea, a weeklong professional development workshop for elementary school level math teachers at the Port 'N Starboard. The workshops, hosted by Fosnot's company New Perspectives on Learning, LLC, drew 150 teachers from throughout Connecticut, New England and as far away as Ohio and Minnesota to learn innovative ways to make teaching mathematics exciting and relevant to young students.

Hartford is starting a pilot program using Fosnot's math curriculum and sent 45 teachers to the seminar. Darien and Fairfield schools have also adopted her math curriculum.

Fosnot has authored or co-authored about 40 books and articles on teaching math, including seven books to go with her Contexts for Learning Mathematics program that uses real experiences from children's lives to teach relevant mathematics. She also is a content consultant for an Internet math program called DreamBox Learning. DreamBox hosted a dinner for the seminar participants one night.

In New York, she founded Mathematics in the City, a professional development program for math teachers. When she retired, she turned that program over to a new director and said it has a capable staff that is still going strong. New London, Fosnot said, is far enough away from New York City to not compete with the program she founded there.

Fosnot's website, www.newperspectivesonlearning.com, now says: "We run institutes for professional development both in New London and on-site."

In one workshop session last week, Fosnot asked dozens of teachers to use problem solving methods taught in several countries - Italy, Russia, South Africa and Egypt to name a few - to work out multiplication and division equations. Teachers used large poster paper and bright colored markers to prove their solutions and pasted them on the wall for scrutiny.

Just knowing the answer to what looked to the adults like straightforward addition, multiplication or division problem was not enough, Fosnot said repeatedly. They had to learn to "mathematize" the problem, "crack the problem" and be able to convey that process to their students.

As she meandered through the room to eavesdrop on their progress, Fosnot heard repeated whispers that their young students would not be asked to solve complicated problems like those presented to the group.

"If you don't learn to love mathematics," she told the teachers, "you'll never be able to show your kids how to love mathematics. If you're really stuck, get out the graph paper, use the scissors, cut pieces out and make a model."

During workshop breaks, teachers walked the Ocean Beach boardwalk on beautiful spring days all week. They watched ferries and sailboats float past and gazed at Ledge Light and the distant islands. At lunch, they ate with a Long Island Sound view.

Fosnot declared the pilot workshop a success and while she still travels to hold seminars elsewhere, she plans to do more and more of them across the street from her home. She plans a weeklong session in September and perhaps another one next spring. She hopes to offer shorter one-day or two-day professional development sessions at the Port 'N Starboard as well.

"It helps New London too," Fosnot said. "People stayed at the Holiday Inn. It was good business for the Port 'N Starboard, and after the workshops, they got to check out New London."

Helping New London is another goal for this 1965 Norwich Free Academy graduate and 2002 winner of the Norwich Rotary/Women's City Club Native Daughter Award, given annually to someone who grew up in Norwich and excelled in a career elsewhere.

Growing up in Norwich, Fosnot's family considered Ocean Beach their summer back yard, so it felt right for her to make Ocean Beach her real back yard in retirement.

An avid gardener, Fosnot joined the New London Beautification Committee, which promotes urban gardening. Fosnot will take care of gardens at Ocean Beach.

She plans to be part of another New London scene very soon. She has rented art studio space at 38 Green Street Galleries for her painting studio. Fosnot's paintings decorate every room in her Ocean Avenue home, many of them depicting scenes of people interacting with a calm ocean beach setting, most of those created before she thought about moving to New London.

She created a series called "Emergence" out of seven used paint pallets, melding the colors to depict the Biblical creation of the universe.

"I will put myself in with serious artists to get me motivated," she said of her art studio.

To Fosnot, art and math are naturally paired together. Solving a math problem is beautiful and artistic, she said, and the spatial relations of geometric shapes enter into her artwork in themed pieces that each show a single human being seemingly trapped in a three-dimensional space. She calls these "Creativity Constrained."

She did a large self portrait that shows her looking down into a mirror, with one of her math books in one hand and an open art book in front of her.

Fosnot said she has loved math for as long as she can remember. She won a sixth grade math contest at the Elizabeth Street School in Norwich, but she traced her desire to be a math teacher to an incident at NFA.

She was a straight-A math student, but in the second level class in the years of tiered classes. She asked a teacher why she wasn't in the top tier and was told flatly "the top class was for the boys who were all going to be engineers." She recalled there were a couple of girls in that class, but that was all.

"That's what motivated me to be a math teacher," she said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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