Honored Ashland instructor uses songs to teach complex math
Tammy Anderson found out last week that she was not selected as Oregon’s Teacher of the Year, so the Ashland High School math teacher had no reason to suspect Wednesday’s mysterious assembly, said to feature a famous (yet unnamed) AHS alum, was in fact a setup.
“Who do you think’s coming?” she asked colleagues, such as fellow math teacher Marissa Watson, one of the few staffers in on the ruse. The usual names were thrown out. Maybe it’s Ann Curry? Or Jeremy Guthrie?
But when Anderson walked into Mountain Avenue Gym and saw, seated in the front row, Oregon Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Salam Noor, the same man who had interviewed Anderson last month in Salem, she knew something was up. And she was right.
Anderson was honored during a special assembly that included speeches, a prize presentation and even a sort-of original song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Tammy,” set to the “Toy Story” classic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and belted out by the entire student body, a celebration of Anderson being named a semifinalist for Oregon’s annual Teacher of the Year award.
After the students packed into the gym, Principal Erika Bare took the microphone and announced that, “I may not have been totally honest about the purpose of this assembly. While it is true we have alumni who are going to be saying a few words a little later in the program, the person we’re actually going to honor today has been right with us every single day for the last 23 years.”
A few moments later a stunned Anderson, who had been standing on the sideline, walked out into the center of the gym and embraced Bare as the students serenaded the moment with a sustained ovation. Anderson was then invited to sit in a chair set up next to the podium and enjoy the show.
“It was overwhelming,” Anderson said of the surprise. “I’m not a person who likes to be in the limelight, so to be sitting in front like that ….”
First, Noor delivered a short speech, praising Anderson as “an exceptional educator” who empowers her students by holding them constantly to high expectations. Noor, ODE spokesperson Meg Boyd and administrative specialist Jenni Knaus then presented Anderson with a $2,000 check.
Then a student, Hesperus di Properzio, stepped up to the microphone and read a letter to Anderson, one of about 50 that were compiled into a large book she was later presented.
“Your intense excitement for all things geometry through calculus has kept me engaged for years,” read di Properzio. On the letter, written with a pencil in cursive, di Properzio underlined “intense.”
Later, the entire student body paid homage to one of Anderson’s most celebrated teaching strategies — her use of catchy children’s songs as mnemonic devices to help students memorize complex math concepts — by singing “You’ve Got a Friend in Tammy,” which was penned by Watson.
Students were invited to join Anderson, who started teaching at AHS in 1991, near the middle of the gym and sing — the lyrics were displayed on an overhead projector — and about 60 did so, but once the familiar tune started playing over the speakers almost everybody in the gym sang along, too.
“And as the years go by; Mrs. Anderson will always try,” it went. “We’re gonna see it’s her destiny; to be our teacher of the year; our teacher of the year.”
Anderson capped the assembly with a short speech of her own, during which she deflected the praise to the rest of the AHS staff and the students.
“The only reason that I made it this far in the process is because a good teacher is only a good teacher if they have wonderful students that they get to work with such as all of you,” she said, “and a fantastic staff that they also get to work with. I’ve learned so much from my students and from my colleagues and I thank you so much for the support. Anything that I’ve done that’s been really good is really you guys.”
Watson, who’s also a math teacher, said Anderson’s songs are only small part of what makes her a special teacher, but they’re also something that just about everybody on campus knows about.
Indeed, the 1,500-word letter the district sent to ODE nominating Anderson mentioned a recent Top Performers event, for which students decided, rather than present individual performances, to instead sing Anderson’s advanced placement calculus song.
On the video, uploaded to Vimeo.com, shows Anderson leading 10 students as they sing the song, set to the children’s song, “I met a bear.” It begins: “In calculus; in calculus; I learn for sure; I learn for sure; the derivative gives; the derivative gives; the slope of the curve; the slope of a curve.”
The technique is so effective, students have to be reminded to keep down the humming during tests and have requested via email, after moving on to college, for copies of lyrics (Anderson’s wholesale solution was to provide a songbook and bookmark to each of her students upon graduation).
“It’s hard to narrow it down, but for me there’s three essential pieces,” Bare said, when asked why the district decided to nominate Anderson. “First, she’s an incredible educator. When students have Tammy for mathematics they’re going to make tremendous growth and progress. She gets tremendous results for her kids. The other piece is that she’s a leader on our campus.
"She doesn’t just serve the students in her math classes, she’s serving our entire student body with things like the student tutor center … She also is very involved in about a gazillion different things — she’s a department head, she’s on leadership committees. And then she builds loving, lasting relationships with her students, and so when they leave her classroom they are cared for, and that’s why they do so exceptionally well when they’re working with her.”
Anderson said she was blown away by the surprise.
“I guess what I really appreciate was that they made this so personal for me,” she said. “That they would sing the song like I do in class. They invited my husband (Erick Anderson) here, which was amazing to have the people who are most important in my life here.
“It was a little overwhelming.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.