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Writing book changed Sheeran's life

Denis Sheeran will deliver the keynote at the upcoming REMAST Conference at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the South Dakota Art Museum.

Denis Sheeran
Denis Sheeran will deliver the keynote at the upcoming REMAST Conference at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the South Dakota Art Museum.

As a result of writing “Instant Relevance: Using Today's Experiences to Teach Tomorrow's Lessons,” Denis Sheeran’s life has changed quite a bit in the last 12 months.

Sheeran had recently become the supervisor of mathematics in Chatham, New Jersey, after teaching high school mathematics for 13 years and noticed a change in the classroom.

“When I went from classroom to classroom, I saw that students didn’t need someone to explain something thoroughly; they needed someone to inspire and engage them,” said Sheeran, who taught in Illinois. “I started thinking ‘did I do that, too?’ Working with other teachers to plan lessons allowed me to provide insights, to talk about how to give students a relevant learning experience rather than just giving them information.

“For the most part, I was a high school math teacher and track coach and thought I’d be that for my career,” Sheeran continued. “However, this opportunity arose from a conversation with another author and Dave Burgess (author of “Teach Like a Pirate”). Shortly after writing the book, I quickly received a lot of positive responses from people asking me to come share that message and work with other math teachers to get them to think like I did. And now less than a year since publishing the book, I’m traveling to South Dakota for the first time in my life.”

Sheeran will deliver a keynote address at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the South Dakota Art Museum’s room 100. The public is invited to the free talk. Sheeran will also participate in the annual REMAST Conference in the Architecture, Mathematics and Engineering Building on the South Dakota State University campus Tuesday and Wednesday. Burgess was the conference’s keynote speaker in 2014.

“Denis has taken a different approach to teaching and seen immediate results,” said Sharon Vestal, SDSU associate professor of mathematics. “Other speakers, such as Dave Burgess and Matt Miller, have inspired our conference attendees to make proactive changes in their classroom and I anticipate Denis to continue that tradition. His book provides a lot of examples on how to increase relevant topics in the classroom and how students learn and are engaged as a result.”

Sheeran’s keynote address will focus on how to engage students, something he noticed when his role switched from teaching to supervising.

“I saw kids shutting down because they were too interested in something else that was going on, whether that’d be a new gadget or a new skill, such as bottle flipping,” Sheeran said. “I told our staff that we need to find our teaching content from those areas. By engaging students where they are and harnessing the momentum of their passions and interests, the classroom becomes so much more than a place where information is deposited from teacher to student. It transforms into a space where there's a true desire to learn.

“Kids can get information from the internet and can learn without having a teacher in the classroom,” he continued. “Part of the message I give to teachers, parents, students and community members is to have them really look at and become aware of what is going on around you. And instead of casting that aside, determine why you liked it, why was it interesting to you and where did you see something like that before?”

Sheeran said the bottle-flipping fad allowed him to have teachers show how the act is a mathematics problem or science experiment, not just a distraction.

“With the right toss height and right amount of water in the bottle, you can show that the bottle will always land correctly,” Sheeran said. “It gave the students the ability to answer the problem while providing an opportunity to control their desire and engage them in real learning. It doesn’t matter if it’s out of sequence to teach probability because it’s an opportunity to teach what’s important to the kids now; make it happen now in class … don’t take a year to plan a set of lessons around it.”

Following the REMAST Conference, South Dakota State will host a math teacher workshop June 19-23 in the Architecture, Mathematics and Engineering Building. The workshop’s focus will be on implementing productive mathematical discourse in the classroom. South Dakota school districts and schools attending include: Aberdeen, Chamberlain, Dell Rapids, Douglas, Leola, Marty Indian School, Montrose, Parkston, Pierre, Pierre Indian Learning Center, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Sioux Falls Catholic Schools, Sisseton and Yankton. For more information, contact Vestal at 605-688-6225 or sharon.vestal@sdstate.edu.