By Tiffany Cassidy
Jacob Geis (left) and Carter Howe (right) think equations equal awesome. Oct. 17, 2011 Photo by Tiffany Cassidy
Jacob Geis is a small town guy. He had no reservations about talking to me, a complete stranger. He sat down casually beside me on Mossbank School’s bench and talked me through the day he showed up at school to discover his Math A30 grades were higher than most high school students dream.
“I got to school and someone was saying that I actually did ace the departmental completely and I was like ‘cool, that should be pretty easy to get into any university I want with it,’” said Geis.
He and Carter Howe “aced” the departmental by getting either 98 or 99 per cent on his departmental – the exact score isn’t made public, they just figured it out through deductive math. Howe, the other class “brain,” said the grades weren’t a huge surprise.
“It comes naturally, mostly,” he said.
The two boys eat, breath, and nerd out together. They sit beside each other in math class and work on homework in their shared hotel room while away on volleyball tournaments. The friends help each other along, checking answers, pointing out something the other may have missed.
“Jacob and I, we’re kinda alike and we’re kinda a lot different,” said Howe.
Jacob’s mother, Jackie Geis said her son has always been into math. She said he’s not the kind of guy mothers worry about.
“He is kind of a quiet kid, but he knows what he wants,” she said. “He basically has his whole life’s agenda planned.”
Making Mossbank School
The friends do their learning within the walls of Mossbank School. It’s a small school with a history. In June 1914 the town petitioned for the organization of a school district. For a while they had an old school barn, until 1961 when the town proposed a new school building project.
Students at the school have been working in their cozy class sizes ever since. In January 2006 lines were Saskatchewan education lines were redrawn and Mossbank joined the Prairie South School Division. This gave them access to resources and furthered the communication between surrounding schools all the way up to Moose Jaw.
School of small numbers: a think tank for students
The man you could call the potter (teacher) behind the clay (successful math students) is Dale Lawrence. He managed Geis and Howe’s A30 math while it was a split class with a Math C30 at the same time. I asked him for his secret.
“I’ve been around for a long time, so, experience. And you have to be organized, especially with two grades in the same classroom so that you’re never wasting time. ’Cause these kids write departmentals so you have to be ready for that. You can’t just waste time because you’re not going to cover the whole curriculum,” said Lawrence.
It turns out many students in his class are performing at levels that would be considered exceptional, but of course he had special praise for Howe and Geis.
“They’re strong students. They can help each other. And with double grades it gets them to be a little more independent with their work. When I’m with the other grade, and they have their assignment, well, I’m not there to help them, so they have to sort of buckle down and do it on their own.”
But others won’t let him get away with modesty.
“He’s patient,” explained Howe. “If you need help you can stay in after school or at noon hours.”
Likewise, Geis finds his method of teaching very easy to follow.
The school principle, Leanne Rutko, said Lawrence brings the math down to a level everyone can understand.
“There’s an art and a science to teaching. So the science is whatever you learn, whatever you are teaching, whatever the content is. Really, anyone can learn that,” she said.
“The other part of it is the art of teaching. How you interact with kids, how you deal with people, how you encourage them, how you inspire them, how you get the information to their level.” Rutko said that when you combine the two “you get teachers who are exemplary teachers.”
But the staff and students feel they have another thing going for them at Mossbank. The school currently only holds 109 students. Jacob and Carter’s class only had nine students, alongside the 6 students taking Match C30 in the same room. These are classmates that have grown up together. The students and their principle agree that in the case of learning, less can be more.
“Almost everyone in math class moved here at a young age and we’ve kind of just been working together all the time,” said Howe.
Howe and Geis will turn to each other during class to check answers, but also other people around them. They also take advantage of the intimate class setting to turn to their help their classmates who may be taking a little longer to grasp a concept.
“In small schools you maybe don’t fall through the cracks as easily,” explained Rutko. “Because we know the kids we don’t have to look through the cume file to see how strong of a math student the kid is. You kind of know. The kids coming into your class, you’ve either had them in your class somewhere along the line, or you’ve had an older sibling… A lot of the issues are addressed before the kid enters the classroom.”
Keeping up in the great education race
Lawrence feels that he is preparing his students for anything. He imagines them going to university and following their dreams. These dreams are becoming increasingly competitive to reach in a more national, even globalized market.
“A lot of times the numbers from one province to another are often compared… So they kind of have to figure out what’s going to make us competitive in a world market or international stage,” explained Rutko.
This is also a time of change for math all across Canada.
Sitting in the principal’s office, Ms. Rutko hands me a piece of paper and asks me to do long addition. Journalism school hasn’t done much to keep me fresh on my math skills, but I recall the strategies I was taught in elementary school and show her how I would go about solving the problem.
Rutko took back my paper. “Why didn’t you do it this way,” she said and went into a new method of addition I had never learned. She said it’s all about offering students multiple ways and strategies to use. Her staff is on board with these new methods.
Rutko also tries to offer as many subjects as possible, but this is difficult in a small school.
Rutko said the school population is still over 100 kids, which is a kind of magic number in the school division. It means they can still offer more in terms of staffing and elective subjects.
Their staff is also made up of mostly women and Rutko feels offering programs like Shop would be asking teachers to leave their comfort zones. The superintendents are working to find ways to offer more classes, such as partnerships with South East Regional College or the John Deer.
When the future is away from Mossbank
Teachers sang the praises of Howe and Jacob my whole time at the Mossbank school. They really were being prepared for bright futures and their grades were clearly good enough to get into university. The question that was always lingering in the back of my mind was whether these “bright futures” included Mossbank.
“It’d be pretty tough to get an engineering job out here for what I’m interested in,” admitted Howe.
There are only 10 people living in Mossbank with a university degree according to Stats Canada. The same census shows there are 10 Mossbank citizens in the education field.
As more young people are becoming educated, the future of all small towns is put into question. But Rutko feels there’s hope in the university field of agriculture, Mossbank’s main industry.
“Farming in itself is becoming such a technical thing,” she said. “What we see is a lot of our students go into agricultural… So if they do come back their skills are going to enhance what they’re doing on the farms.”
Yet there doesn’t seem to be a current demand for engineers with degrees from the University of Regina, which both Howe and Geis hope to become.
“Like, I grew up on the farm, I like farming, kinda, but… if I took engineering it wouldn’t really apply to what’s going on around here. There’s not much for jobs. Mossbank’s probably not going to get a whole lot bigger in the future. It’s probably just going to kinda dwindle off,” said Howe.
Though Howe and Geis weren’t thrilled about the idea of moving to the big cities.
“I like the small towns a lot better than the big cities,” mused Geis. “It’s a lot easier. You don’t have to worry just walking around.”
Howe seemed to be planning a future in which he could have it all. “I don’t want to live in the city but I want to be like close to it so maybe just a small town outside of the city like fifteen/twenty minutes, or maybe like an acreage or something so my kids can still be kinda close to the school,” he said.
I asked Lawrence whether his star pupils would be leaving town for good.
“In a way you hope. Because there’s so much more out there. You know this is a great town but for them to come back, unless they’re going to come farm, which I doubt it, you know there’s nothing here for them. With their interests… yeah.”
Geis’s mother reiterated the sentiment: “I think once he gets out in his field, yeah, he’ll be… he’ll be gone.”
Jackie Geis’s feelings of letting her son go were mixed with the pride she felt for him. She said she knew he would excel in whatever he does.
Likewise, Rutko mused about the open future of her students:
“Carter and Jacob will both be awesome university students… The world is at their feet right now because they are so good at what they do, they are very focused, and they have awesome work habits, and they’re serious about learning. They’ll do very well.”