Saturday, February 23, 2013

Math Revisited: Time and Priorities

In elementary classrooms today, there's a bit of a content war going on--a war between disciplines each vying for the hours available in the day.

In Massachusetts, the ELA tests are coming up so that gives reading and writing a bit of an edge in the battle.  Then in April and May, Math will have an edge with upcoming Math MCAS tests.  Also, thoughtful teachers will keep science and social studies alive even though the content, knowledge and skills in those areas are not tested (nor should be tested in my opinion), and those same teachers will have an eye on the future as they employ technology and other tools that foster the 4 C's: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking skills.

Some would argue that an even menu of each skill daily will bring all students ahead.  As a classroom teacher I know that equation doesn't work because the differential between where students enter the grade level and the skills they are supposed to attain is equal to far more than a year for most.  I also know that to teach well means you make time for engagement, passion/interest, response, meaningful content, student discourse, community building and fun, yes fun!

So where does that leave me with regards to the math curriculum.

It's been a wonderful year of math instruction so far.  My new Massachusetts' evaluation goals were focused on math instruction which included a terrific graduate school course related to the new math standards, the creation of a teaching/learning document focused on those standards and a student learning goal focused on facts. The evaluation goals prompted me to dig deep when it came to my own math knowledge and instruction and set me on a path of many varied instructional models and efforts including the following:
  • Quick-feedback online practice sites and assessments.
  • Engaging, social and competitive game based online math games.
  • Online models and games for class instruction and practice.
  • You Tube and other videos that explain concepts, skills and knowledge.
  • Paper/pencil practice.
  • Formative and summative assessments including GMADE, MCAS, That Quiz tests, content tests and others. 
  • Classroom Math Projects such as the Factor Card Project.
  • Problem solving efforts and practice.
  • Skill by skill, and content by content attention to standards in differentiated ways. 
  • RTI efforts (started strong, but compromised by staffing/support issues).
  • Student-to-student coaching.
  • Math Workshop.
  • Explicit Math Instruction.
So at this turning point in the year, where am I headed with math instruction.

It's imperative that I carve out enough time for math while not compromising students' performance in ELA.  That's tricky and will take careful planning.

Instructional Support
Making the most of specialists and teaching assistants' time and effort will support this effort.  For most math lessons, it is me and 25 students with diverse needs and ability, hence I have to make the most of my time.The assistants' schedule is sporadic and it's often the case that many assistants in elementary schools do not have substantial knowledge or experience with math education. We have a math coach, but he does not work with students--his only area of support is helping me plan lessons, so that's challenging when it comes to my need to teach so many diverse students at once.  As for our RTI approach in math, we started strong as we had a wonderful, experienced assistant working with us, but once we lost the assistant, our efforts became challenged due to the large numbers of students and need for extensive planning without added time. On a positive note, some specialists are planning for some students and beginning to take them on a regular basis so that should help. Also, I have a dedicated parent volunteer who helps out once a week. 

Family Support
Family support is critical.  Parents have been very supportive.  I've definitely over-communicated our weekly math goals and efforts to enlist their support and many have jumped onboard.  I've also offered coaching sessions for parents and students which have not been popular, but in the one case where a parent took me up on the offer, the child made incredible leaps in achievement. This is a new concept so I'm not surprised it hasn't not taken off yet.  Soon we will have parent conferences, and that will give me another chance to meet with families, share assessments and strategize together about students' needs and achievement.

Well-planned, differentiated, meaningful lessons and units are critical to math education.  There are so many wonderful tools available for thoughtful math education today so the key is to plan each unit well utilizing all the wonderful tools available.  Time is always an issue for classroom teachers since they are planning for a number of lessons each day, and to teach responsively means you are revising those lessons constantly to meet students' specific needs.  I'm about to embark on reviewing multiplication, teaching division and investigating models that demonstrate both division and multiplication in meaningful, project based ways.  That's the next unit for careful planning and execution, and there are many more units to follow once that unit is complete. 

Practice is also critical.  Many students lose their number knowledge and problem solving abilities quickly without regular practice.  Weekly practice and growth with online systems such as Symphony Math, That Quiz, Xtra Math, Sum Dog and others will aid this process.  Also weekly practice with algorithms, estimation and math skills will also help to keep knowledge current and fresh.

It's true that math will take a bit of a back seat in the weeks ahead as the ELA tests stand waiting, but that doesn't mean math won't get a fair share of the schedule.

How do you deal with the "content wars?"  What are the important criteria for math programs?  How do you best support and foster math learning and education in your classroom and your school?  Like every content area, the more you know, the better work you do. I look forward to your commentary.