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84-year-old math tutor retiring

Published: Monday, June 9, 2014 7:00 a.m. CST
Caption
In this May 14, 2014 photo, Don Cohen, known as "The Math Man" works with Lucia Lombardi, 14, in his home in Champaign. After 38 years of math tutoring, Cohen will hang up his hat at the end of this month. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robin Scholz)

CHAMPAIGN (AP) — After 38 years of math tutoring, Don Cohen will hang up his hat as "The Math Man" at the end of this month.

Cohen, who gave up a job in computer-based education at the University of Illinois to tutor full time, still averages 43 student sessions a week. But at age 84, he's getting ready to make some life changes.

"My son is concerned about my health, and he wants me to stay healthy," Cohen said last week. "He found me a place at Prairie Winds assisted living (in Urbana)."

Cohen's wife, Marilyn, is in a nursing home as the result of a 2012 stroke.

"I'm running over there every day, doing my tutoring, taking care of the house," Cohen said. "I feel pretty good, but there's a lot of stuff going on."

Much of the stuff takes place in the basement of his home in west Champaign, where kids meet in groups. On a recent afternoon, he helped a 14-year-old girl preparing for finals and 6- and 8-year-old brothers, one of whom was working on equations, the other on fractions.

"I have at most five kids in a group — mostly four or fewer — and they sit around my table in the math room," he said. "I work individually with each one."

Cohen's tutoring sessions last 45 minutes.

"Last school year, I was averaging 57 student sessions per week, and this year, I'm averaging about 43," he said.

One of Cohen's claims to fame is his book "Calculus By and For Young People — Ages 7 (Yes, 7) and Up."

That book, translated into Japanese and also available on CD-ROM and DVD, outlines Cohen's belief that even young children can absorb mathematical concepts if they're presented in ways that interest and intrigue the kids.

When asked why a 7-year-old would want to learn calculus, Cohen declared 7-year-olds "don't know calculus from a hole in the ground — I don't use the word at the beginning." But the notion of an infinite process "is very interesting to them," he said.

To illustrate the idea, he had an 8-year-old divide a square cake into halves, then cut one of the halves in half, then divide one of the quarters in half and so on. The child concluded that if you added the half, the quarter, the eighth, the sixteenth and so on together, there would always be a smaller and smaller piece of the cake remaining.

Cohen got math and physics degrees from the State University of New York at Albany, plus a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He taught math to junior high school students in New York and Missouri before joining The Madison Project, a teacher-training project funded by the National Science Foundation.

In 1972, he moved to Champaign-Urbana to become principal specialist in automated education for the PLATO computer-based education project at the UI.

He and colleague Jerry Glynn were asked to work on PLATO projects that would teach "new math" to kids.

"What happened was, we were making up these things for the kids to work on. We would sit at the terminal and talk to the kids — 'Hey, Joe, how's it going?' — to find out how they were doing. ETS (the Educational Testing Service) was in charge of the program. They heard we were talking with kids, and they said no human intervention. So we decided to leave PLATO because we wanted to work with kids."

Cohen and Glynn started The Math Program in 1976, initially doing their tutoring from the McKinley Foundation building on campus. They later did tutoring from other church buildings and eventually from their homes.

Leaving PLATO to start The Math Program was "the greatest thing that ever happened," Cohen said. He said he was able to support his wife and three children, who were in high school and college at the time.

When asked how his tutoring approach differed from those of others, Cohen cited three distinctions:

"One, I have a sense of humor. Two, I expect the kids to do well. Three, I expect them to do things different from how I do them," he said.

"Most of the time, a teacher stands up, the kids take notes and then on Friday they have a test and they regurgitate what they were told," he said.

But seeing how kids figured out things on their own "made teaching interesting" to Cohen, and he subsequently adopted some approaches they discovered in the learning process.

Four of Cohen's students went on to get doctorates in physics, and another got a doctorate in math, he said. Some students worked with him as long as eight or 12 years.

But he acknowledged he couldn't help every kid who came to him.

"Sure, I tried hard, but I remember one kid where nothing seemed to work very well. Her grandmother used to bring her, and she felt wonderful about it, but I didn't see any progress in school," Cohen said.

"And I did get rid of one student who was a pain in the neck," he added.

Cohen and Glynn eventually went their own ways, though they do occasionally go out to lunch together with colleague David Eisenman.

Cohen said he adopted the name "The Math Man" after he visited a student's house in Arcola and heard someone inside say, "Here comes the math man." He told that to his wife, and the next year, he had an Illinois license plate identifying him as "MATH MAN."

That license plate hangs on the walls of the his math room, along with dozens of photos of students he's taught and pieces of colorful artwork by them. Some of the artwork reflects geometric concepts, others are caricatures of "Mr. Cohen." The artwork covers not only the walls, but ceiling too.

Though his tutoring days are coming to an end, Cohen is not ready to say goodbye to mathematics education.

"I've got a book in my head," he said. "It's for teachers — trying to get kids to do great stuff."

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