BERKELEY -- Some math classrooms are so quiet you can hear the sound of pencils on paper.
Robert MacCarthy's class at Willard Middle School in Berkeley has a different soundtrack. His sixth-graders problem-solve out loud -- sometimes into a big blue microphone -- and applaud each other afterward. They take on lively games and challenges that mix math with art.
Maybe, if they're lucky, they'll get to star in a math music video produced by their teacher and classmates under the label mathisnotacrime productions. "Integer Eyes" is the latest hit. "Math Hustla," released in 2009, quickly became a Willard classic.
"I never met an expression that I couldn't simplify. I never met a problem that I couldn't solve," two students rap, alternating lines, as they move to the beat.
Math can be a tough sell for adolescents. When students hit middle school, they often grow frustrated with math and begin to question the importance of knowing how to isolate a variable or graph an equation. Some end up failing the same courses again and again and eventually drop out of school -- even as their schools devote more time to the subject, said Harold Asturias, director of the Center for Mathematics Excellence and Equity at UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science.
Asturias says he often hears math teachers remark on students' lack of motivation. The key, he said, is to find a way to reach those kids -- to create activities "that don't only make students feel better about what they're learning, but that make connections to real-life problems."
MacCarthy, who teaches math, science and technology, has a similar view. He said he had poor math teachers when he was growing up and that he struggled to make sense of the material. His experience inspired him to have a classroom of his own, he said. He wanted to do things differently.
Years later, his students are coming to school in mathematical fashion statements: T-shirts covered with problems they solved with markers and glitter paint.
Mr. Mac, as his students call him, taught for 10 years in Hayward's public schools; first at Harder Elementary and then at Winton Middle. Many of his students were English learners, so he incorporated extra visuals to help them understand the material. He used conversations about math to help them improve their language skills.
When MacCarthy came to Willard in 2007, he brought those teaching practices with him. Signs of math, science and art are everywhere in his classroom, down to the pre-algebraic equations painted on the windows. A strip of paper bordering the room bears the beginning digits of the never-ending constant pi, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.
His students don't take notes. He finds they can absorb information better if all they need to do is listen.
During a recent lesson, the students worked in groups, lining up positive and negative fractions on a long piece of construction paper. Some of the numbers look like "nasty fractions," he told them, but they are just "whole numbers in disguise."
"You're lucky," he said. "When I was learning fractions, we just got thrown worksheets and they said 'Go, figure it out,' and I didn't do so well with fractions."
The class is challenging, but the creative, quirky atmosphere makes it fun to learn, said students who were interviewed for this story. Some said they had surprised themselves by how far they'd come this year.
"At first I was low. So low," said 12-year-old Mekhi McElroy. "This year I jumped higher than I thought I would."
Mekhi said Mr. Mac's teaching style makes it almost impossible to tune out in class. "He helps us by being funny," he said. "The way he teaches, people want to pay attention to him."
Attending a middle school that produces popular math music videos does carry one small risk: You might find silly songs about numbers forever lodged in your brain. The lyrics might come out at any moment, too -- in the hallways, or at lunch. During an interview, even.
Raemahn Henderson, 11, broke into song as she and her classmates told stories about Mr. Mac's math class. No one laughed; it happens all the time. And everyone seemed to know the words: "Multiply, divide; use the rules. Don't mess it up; use the tools."
You can find some of the videos at www.mathisnotacrime.com under the "videos" tab. Others are posted on YouTube under mathisnotacrime productions.