By Katie Doolittle
The River Ridge High School theater is packed with cheering students. Upbeat music booms as a group of young performers begin their entertaining and purposeful choreography. The dancers’ every dip, twirl, and arm gesture physically “graph” the polynomial equations appearing on the projector screen above them.
What, exactly, is going on?
Pre-calculus, of course!
This annual ritual known as “Dance of the Equations” has become a much-anticipated capstone activity for George Christoph’s Pre-Calculus class. But it’s not just a fun project that pops up every spring. Rather, physical equation-mapping is a key component throughout Christoph’s rigorous course. The activity taps kinesthetic, visual, and auditory learning modalities. It’s just one of the ways in which Christoph, a true education innovator, seeks to engage kids.
“Mr. Christoph doesn’t teach math,” one student shares. “He teaches us how to think, and then he coaches us while we learn the math ourselves.” A group of kids clamors to elaborate. It’s apparent that they feel fully supported by Christoph even as they’re encouraged towards intellectual independence.
Christoph himself would certainly appreciate the distinction. “I teach kids,” he says. “Mathematics is just the vehicle.”
Problem solving: that’s the theme of Christoph’s class. He wants his students to apply their critical thinking skills across a full spectrum of life activities and learning pursuits. As such, he’s built a discussion-based math curriculum centered on one difficult problem a day. Students reason out a solution together, often entertaining a “wrong track” and then going backward when they hit a dead end. The process fosters students’ metacognitive skills. “Don’t tell me what you did,” he often instructs. “Tell me what you thought about doing.”
In this manner, he seeks to correct a common misconception among students: that bright people get hit by regular inspirational thunderbolts. Instead, Christoph’s method teaches kids that intelligence is the result of background knowledge being constantly expanded and thoughtfully applied. Intellectual- and self-awareness is the key to success in his class, just as it is in so many walks of life.
And it’s not just adolescents who benefit from Christoph’s enthusiasm and expertise. He also serves as an adjunct professor at St. Martin’s University, working in both the Mathematics and Education departments. Moreover, his influence has brought the high school and college closer together in myriad ways. Perhaps most importantly, Christoph gets to meet all the good potential teachers working through the University’s STAR program. He regularly takes on teacher interns—the best method, he says, for building staff. “Pick your teacher interns carefully and do a good job with them,” he says. “Then we’ve got a never-ending supply.”
Christoph has been mentoring teacher interns for 40 years now. As one former intern explains, “All this experience has given him a wealth of knowledge of how to help shape and guide teacher interns. He also worked as an instructional coach prior to working at River Ridge, so he has that background as well.”
That former intern is Jay Jahnsen, who first met Christoph as the instructor of his graduate-level “Geometry for Teachers” course. Now, they are colleagues in the River Ridge math department. The evolving relationship has been beneficial to both teachers. As Jahnsen describes, “George asks me about how to use Khan Academy and I ask him for advice about how to teach linear equations. Our relationship began as professor and student, shifted to mentor and intern, and has now arrived at colleague and coworker. Even though George has a new teacher intern, I know that I can always ask him for help and advice.”
Jahnsen gave Christoph one of the best compliments any educator can give another. He observed in his teacher intern days that Christoph “doesn’t spend a lot of time focused on the disasters that can sometimes happen. Instead of asking ‘What went wrong?,’ George is very good at asking, ‘What will you do differently next time?’ He doesn’t view teaching as something which is right or wrong, but rather as an art that can be consistently improved upon.”
Christoph’s own career path is a testimony to the idea of consistent improvement. His teaching experiences range from middle school to graduate school, and everything in between. His many accolades include awards as diverse as “Coach of the Year” and “Outstanding Mathematics Teacher of the Year.” He’s been a National Presenter for Texas Instruments and was the driving force behind creating the biannual Martin A. Gardner Memorial Lecture Series. He’s even written and narrated a video for TED-ED that has been viewed over 60,000 times around the world!
So if anyone’s earned the right to rest on his laurels, it’s Christoph. But that’s just not his way. He’s constantly seeking to learn and grow. That’s certainly one of the reasons he’s among the three Washington state finalists for the 2014 President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics. And it’s most definitely why he’s able to consistently reach so many students. Christoph doesn’t just tell them to be problem-solvers. He shows them, every day, the positive results yielded by thinking critically and living intentionally.
In the end, that’s probably his greatest legacy of all.