CLEARFIELD — “This is not quiet time. Talk to each other!” Kelland Davis, an eighth grade math teacher, called out to his class at North Davis Junior High.
The large class split into two groups, each on a different side of the classroom. In each group, the students set up two rows of desks facing each other, with an aisle running between them.
Two students, a boy and a girl, volunteered to circulate up and down the inner aisle of the two rows to help anyone in their group who was stuck. Students were also working in pairs with people sitting near them, which is why Davis was encouraging them to interact.
The Isley Brothers played in the background. (“You know you make me wanna shout!”) The energy of the classroom matched the music.
As students finished the exercise they were working on — they were learning about irrational numbers — they brought their notebooks up to Davis, who quickly skimmed them and noted any errors.
Davis was intermittently surrounded by groups of three to four students, whose notebooks he cycled through quickly.
“Right answers. Wrong work. Ask someone in your group.”
Once they got the right answers, students returned to help those in their group who hadn’t finished yet. They also socialized — and they didn’t get in trouble for this.
“You gotta live,” Davis said, about letting students socialize during class. “What would life be like if you didn’t have friends?”
By this point in the lesson, slightly more than a half hour into the period, the class had already gone through two other desk arrangements and several songs on Davis’ playlist, which he paused and clicked through on his Apple watch.
Only a couple of words from Davis would get everyone in the class moving to rearrange their desks into different formations. Up to this point, the class had gone through “Make space,” “Back home” and “Two teams.”
Despite only being a couple weeks into the school year, changing desk arrangements had become so automatic that the students moved like a football team executing a well-known play on the field.
In addition to more interaction and movement than math classes are traditionally known for, Davis started the lesson with a topic that most would probably not expect in a math class: feelings.
The group started the lesson sitting in a big circle on the floor and talking about irrational and rational feelings as a way to understand the words “rational” and “irrational” before relating them to math. This discussion also allowed them to make connections between abstract terms and their own lives.
Davis talked about “irrational feelings,” which he described as complex and hard to describe — as opposed to those that are easily understandable, like boredom or happiness. He also asked the group to discuss and share an “irrational fear” with each other.
A student named Anthony said a feeling that was hard to describe was the “butterflies before a game.” A student named Andi said her parents say she has an irrational fear of spiders.
Davis then related this difficulty with expressing certain emotions to the difficulty in expressing irrational numbers. He also gave a definition of rational numbers that was more straightforward than algebra classes are known for.
“Rational numbers are numbers that you can write down because they either stop or repeat,” Davis said, as his introduction to the complete definition. Just like more straightforward feelings, they’re easier to express.
Discussing emotion as a way to relate to math concepts is not the only role that emotions play in Davis’ classroom, though. He attends to his students’ emotions on a regular basis.
On the back wall of his classroom, the word “person” is spelled out in giant block letters.
“We talk about that (word) all the time,” Davis said. “That’s the foundation of the classroom ... ‘I’m a person and you’re a person.’
“We’re not video game characters. We’re real,” Davis continued, talking about a rest period for everyone at the beginning of class. “So I need two minutes or three minutes so I can take a breath myself.”
His students say they appreciate this approach — and they love his class, even though it’s only two weeks into the school year.
“It’s really nice to be in that class because ... it’s so free,” said Andi Cottle, one of Davis’ students. “There’s so many good vibes going around ... it’s very relaxing to go into math class.
“He gets a lot of feedback from students, and it’s really amazing. I love him,” Cottle continued. “He pulls us aside to check on us ... he is one of those teachers where he really wants to know if you’re OK ... every time after lunch (when) I had a really rough day, I go into his class, and I just feel so much better, like I feel all the weight just lifted off my shoulders. And I’m ready to learn math. I’m so excited to learn math.”
“He’s not boring,” said another student, T.J. Hansen. “He moves desks around a lot and he never really has us do worksheets and just sit there.”
Hansen also says he’s improving in math, even though he doesn’t have homework.
One of the things Hansen values about Davis is “just knowing that he treats everybody with respect, like I can trust him if I have any questions.”
This attention to emotions and relationships — both with and among his students — doesn’t just make Davis’ students feel better at school. It also seems to be boosting their performance.
More than half of his 179 students last year were at or above the 91st percentile in math, and only six of them scored below the state average, according to a district press release.
This is considerable growth from three to four years ago, when Davis’ scores were quite low.
During that period when his scores were low, Davis said he was focusing on “creating a fully digital learning environment.” Students were on devices working at their own pace, and he was available to give assistance when they needed it.
“When we broke away from that model, and we’ve approached learning as a team sport and interaction as ... its own value, we maximized our learning growth,” Davis said. “You can’t personalize learning without the person.”
Davis was named Davis School District’s Teacher of the Year in May 2019. He has advanced to be one of five finalists for 2020 Utah Teacher of the Year. The winner will be announced Thursday.