Making math fun: Gillette teacher engaging his students in unique ways

Thunder Basin Teacher Donavon Voigt sings his variation of "Don't Worry be Happy," which he calls "Don't Worry be Mathey" for his math classes on Wednesday morning. "It makes it a little more human," Voigt says of incorporating songs into his remote teaching lessons. Photo by August Frank, Gillette News Record.

GILLETTE — One thing that’s nearly impossible to replicate with remote learning is the personal interaction between students and teachers.

But Donavon Voigt is making unique efforts to connect with his high school juniors and seniors in his pre-calculus and calculus classes at Thunder Basin High School.

Voigt has a reputation for presenting entertaining lessons, senior Hayden Sylte said. From drawing pictures on his notes or on graded homework to videos of him singing about a subject, he said Voigt does a good job of “incorporating fun into math.”

That hasn’t changed with remote learning, even though most of Voigt’s material has been delivered through pre-recorded lessons.

“I think the kids are missing the face-to-face interactions,” Voigt said. “It forces you to be a little creative. After a while, you get tired of being in front of a screen and not having human contact.”

Sometimes Voigt will introduce a concept by singing a song or he’ll randomly break into song or random thought in the middle of a lesson “to break up the monotony,” he said.

Voigt tries to make his remote lessons resemble being in a classroom as much as possible. His students can see the notes he is taking on the screen while he is talking, something Sylte has found helpful.

The students can’t see Voigt face-to-face, but have come to expect and hope for the goofy asides from their math teacher.

“I was expecting a video (on the first day) and sure enough, one came,” Sylte said. “I’ve never seen Mr. Voigt with this much facial hair and he said he’s not going to cut it until we get out of this. So that’s pretty fun.”

Voigt said he’s naturally “into music a lot” and began incorporating that into his teaching a little more last year. It started with a math Christmas carol that he recorded and his students thought was funny, then he recreated the popular song “Old Town Road” as “Old Calc Road.”

“There might be something briefly within in their notes where I sing it or think of a song that relates in a weird way,” Voigt said. “Sometimes it’s just weird, but that’s all right.”

The pre-recorded lessons have come with an unexpected benefit. With his teaching style, it’s nice to be able “to go back and self-edit,” Voigt said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, Voigt was “at a natural break” and finishing a subject going into spring break. His juniors and seniors jumped into new subjects when remote learning started, but with only two lessons per week, Voigt said he had to trim them to “bite-sized” chunks.

Having high-level math subjects with no classroom time makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dive as deeply into material like usual, Voigt said. But he wants to make the lessons engaging and doesn’t mind if he gets laughed at along the way.

“Every day there’s something that’s not just ‘A squared plus B squared equals C squared,’ but something that maybe they can groan or laugh at you or maybe actually think it’s funny,” Voigt said.

Sylte enjoys every second of it, especially in a subject like calculus that “is not the most fun,” he said.

Voigt’s sense of humor has emerged in more subtle ways, too.

To ensure his students are asking questions, Voigt has been giving seniors problems that are a little too hard, Sylte said. Sylte has texted Voigt on several occasions and said they often share a laugh because “those aren’t normal problems.”

“He’s able to make math fun and makes you want to keep doing it,” Sylte said.