Judy Poliakoff believes that she can make math fun, not an easy chore considering that many high-schoolers find the subject notoriously dull.
Her approach is to use tailor-made projects to make computations of all sorts more interesting, more hands-on. This is an educational strategy she used as a teacher at Roxborough High School during her almost 30-year career. She retired last June.
In one particular lesson, after her students made gingerbread houses, Poliakoff showed the class how to take measurements and utilize formulas to find the structure's surface area – skills that have practical, real-life applications.
"If you wanted to paint a house, you would need to know how many cans you'll need," explained Poliakoff, 58, of Wynnewood. "You need applied knowledge of formulas."
She believes such projects "reinforce the learning that's already taken place" in the classroom, said Poliakoff. In this way, her students "could see mathematics come alive."
Her years of teaching seem to be paying off: She has recently been named a state finalist for the 2005 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She joins two other Pennsylvania teachers so designated this year.
Poliakoff said she would be especially proud to win the award because she comes from a city-run public school, rather than a private or suburban institution with more money and resources.
"I was overjoyed" to be nominated, she stated. "It gave a stamp of accomplishment for my 35 years of teaching. And I just think it would be wonderful if a city school would win."
The results will be announced at a March ceremony in Washington, D.C., where a total of 108 Presidential Awards will be given to teachers from all 50 states and four federal jurisdictions.
Poliakoff believes strongly in teaching kids to cooperate with one another, which is why she always stressed working in groups.
This, she maintained, allows students who've mastered certain subjects help others who are struggling.
"Cooperative learning through modeling – it's been very effective," she noted.
As a kid growing up in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Wynnefield, Poliakoff never really considered any other career.
"I always played the role of the teacher as a child," she said.
"I like sharing information. I like the reward of seeing children have mastery of a subject."
A Role Model
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in history from Temple University in 1969, she began substitute teaching at public high schools throughout the city, but longed for a career teaching math. She went back to school and earned a math certification at St. Joseph's University, and then a master's degree from Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. She began teaching math at Roxborough in 1974.
Poliakoff, a member in good standing with Hadassah, also took her skills to her synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood, where she organized a book club for years.
And education also seems to run in the family: Her daughter Amanda teaches physical education and health in West Chester.
"I think it's wonderful that I was a role model for her and for many of my students," said Poliakoff. "I hope she has a wonderful career, as I did."
Although retired, Poliakoff remains active, serving as an adjunct instructor at St. Joe's, as well as continues with a service-learning project, where students from Roxborough High School do math-related arts-and-crafts projects with senior citizens at nursing homes.
"I hope this will open doors to utilize retired teachers in public schools," she said for the record. Expertise like hers, she added, should be put to good use.