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Joseph Halpin: Math as a Beautiful Language

Joseph Halpin of Pisgah Elementary was never interested in school growing up. In fact, he says in no uncertain terms that he hated it. He felt like his teachers talked the whole class without differentiating. His wife encouraged him to do some teaching at their church when in his 20s, but it wasn’t until some major life changes in his 30s that he pursued a Master’s in Teaching.


Joseph Halpin has a multi-faceted teaching strategy that really takes an artistic approach to math. “The first thing I tell my students is that math is a language and numbers are beautiful,” he said. He likens math to the alphabet, but math only has a nine-letter alphabet: zero to nine.


Joseph feels strongly about not only teaching math, but also the conversations we have about math as a country. “In the United States, it’s okay to say you’re bad in math. I think that’s a shame, and we can do better than that,” he said. He tells his students that math makes you a logical person and it teaches you how to think. “Once you teach math as a language that can be mastered, you get a better buy-in by the kids,” Joseph said.


In his classroom, there’s a three-step process behind his teaching: launch, explore, and discuss. Joseph doesn’t want to lecture for an entire class period, instead preferring to explain the challenge briefly and let his students have what he calls “a productive struggle.”


If his students get used to struggling with concepts, he believes that will add grit and allow them more confidence to stick it out when they don’t immediately understand. The explore portion sees the students break out into groups and start to work through the issues and find ways to solve them. The discussion portion is also critical. It allows students to talk through spots they had trouble or where the material started to make sense.


“I think it’s critical to give students high-level tasks,” said Joseph. “I would rather give students four high-level tasks in an hour and a half than 40 problems on a worksheet.” This is why rote memorization doesn’t interest him and he doesn’t find it is more efficient than working through a few high-level problems.


Drawing inspiration from Bob Ross, he focuses on using the right tools for learning. “Painting is very similar to mathematics. You need someone to model for you and be calm and articulate the goals,” said Joseph. If you have that guidance and the right tools, you can be a master painter or, in the case of Joseph’s classroom, a master mathematician.


Photos courtesy of Joseph Halpin

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