This week I have had the pleasure of working very closely with our school district’s Math teachers. On Monday night (Feb. 21) we hosted a dinner meeting with Middle & High School Math teachers, specifically Gr. 7-10, and school administrators. Last night, we held a similar meeting with Elementary & Middle School math teachers, specifically Gr. 1-7, and school administrators. So as not to overload anyone, we asked that the Gr. 7 teachers & middle school administrators not be the same people at both meetings. Our district has K-5 elementary schools, 6-8 middle schools, and 9-12 high schools.
There has been a feeling in our district that Math has been the poor cousin to our other two goals: Literacy and School Completion. For all of the right reasons, we have focused so much of our attention and resources on improving the literacy skills of all of our students, but especially for our vulnerable learners. We have also put a tremendous amount of energy behind our School Completion Goal trying to uncover the complex reasons why some of our students are not graduating from high school. However, as I posted on February 5, “Math still takes kids lunch money!”
This year we have put some purposeful energy behind supporting and enhancing our Math instruction. Over the past number of years there has been a pedagogical shift in the B.C. Math curriculum that now emphasizes mathematical processes and the core nature of math more than simple rote memorization and drill-and-kill. This shift in pedagogy has caused some stress and anxiety amongst our math teachers, especially for those who have never utilized manipulatives, for example, as effective instructional tools.
With all of that, we felt it was time to bring our Math teachers together to talk about how we develop a Seamless K-12 Math Experience for our students. We’ve done an excellent job in our district with the social transitions between our schools. As I like to say, “We have enough balloons and BBQs.” Where we need to improve is in our curricular transitions; specifically how our students transition from an elementary to a middle to a high school math classroom.
Both evenings were divided into four segments (about 30 min. per). The groups were mixed by level and by schools; here’s what we talked about.
1) Common Practices between Levels: The groups discussed the commonalities and differences in five specific areas: Classroom routines, Lesson format, Practice time, the Literacy of Math, and Assessment. We certainly found a lot of overlap, but there were some differences; differences that will create a significant challenge for our vulnerable learners to move seamlessly through the system.
2) Communication Needs: Groups discussed what communication is currently working well, what further communication is needed, and whether or not the information being communicated is specific, timely, and/or useable. Communication between the adults is the key to creating effective curricular transitions.
3) Problem Solving, Differentiation, and Manipulatives: The groups then had discussion on these three specific topics. The goal was to understand how these areas were addressed at each of the levels and what could be done to bring about more alignment. Again, while there was some overlap, we were able to identify certain practices where some significant differences existed.
4) Essential Learning: We know that we always run out time before we run out of textbook, so our teachers are already making choices about when to go deep and when to move on. With that, we wanted to be a little more strategic about those choices. We discussed the concepts that are essential; which curricular outcomes are essential and which could be marginalized for the sake of deeper understandings. The example I’ve often referenced is should teachers spend more time on ‘fractions’ even at the expense of ‘statistics and probability?’ The overwhelming response from our group was ‘yes’. Some math skills are more important than others if students are going to successfully navigate the math curriculum within their schools. Grounding our students in the fundamentals – not memorizing, but knowing – will build their confidence and allow them to expect a positive outcome. If everything is a priority then nothing is.
This was just the start as we still have a lot of work to do. Our goal is to create as much of a Seamless Math Experience for our students as we can. The conversations have just begun, but they were focused, deep, and constructive. We all love it when a plan comes together. These were nights where I was able to sit back and soak up the conversation; to allow the experts in the room to do what they do best! Lisa West & Steve LaPointe (our District Numeracy Helping Teachers) organized two excellent evenings of discussion and our teachers left feeling optimistic about where our math instruction was headed.
…and the cheesecake for dessert wasn’t bad either!