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Monday, October 24, 2016

Teaching Well: Difficult Conversations and Pedagogical Challenges

Note that this post was updated on 7/13/2018


After a series of events and exchanges, an administrator posed the following question, "How do you as the teacher do the scaffolding necessary so that the student grasps the concepts so that you may recommend  him/her for a higher level math class at the end of the year?" This is a good pedagogical question. It is a question that sits at the center of my practice, and one for which I have desired focused discussion about with the greater math teaching/learning team. Though rather than teach for "a higher level math class at the end of the year," I would like to say teach for successful math growth, engagement, and empowerment. I'm really on the fence with regard to leveling as I've heard some good support for leveling, but I've also read about research that demonstrates leveling to be destructive with regard to student learning. 

Then at ECET2-MA2016, one keynote speaker, Jose Vilson, urged us to think more about pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching. His call and the administrator's question go hand in hand.


Overall, with students who score and perform within the grade level standards' expectations, this is not a tough question. Those students grasp the concepts for "a higher level math class" at the end of the year. Those students bring to the fifth grade the background, study skills, home support, and learning-to-learn behaviors and mindsets that enable them to grasp the concepts with ease. The current teaching program which includes a multi-modal, standards-based approach responds well to these students.


The challenge with the question above lies with the students who come to fifth grade one or more grade levels behind with regard to the grade-level expectations. These are the students that have a difficult time grasping the grade-level concepts, knowledge, and skill standards. These are the students that the administrator's question refers to.


Currently we have the following supports in place:

  • Differentiated Math Instruction. There is a fair amount of differentiation that happens during the core math program. That differentiation develops as the year goes on and our relationships with students get deeper and stronger. There's always room for growth here, and this approach could profit from looping when a teacher teaches the same students for two years in a row. I was able to do this a few years ago and I noticed good growth in this regard.
  • Math Preview Program: We currently have a math preview program that has been connected to greater success. I have asked to see this analysis, but it hasn't been shared so I cannot comment about how this program leads to greater success. This program has been changed to a two-week summer program this year. 
  • Response to Intervention (RTI): We also employ a strategic approach to RTI where every six weeks students learn in two 30-minute focused math groups. The groups which vary in size and students each six-week period are made to meet targeted instructional needs. Our RTI efforts have demonstrated successful academic growth. The year when this was most successful was a year when we employed a five-day-a-week RTI program run by a qualified special educator with a focus on developing number sense. This program was developmental, consistent, and focused. We tried to get traction for instituting a five-day a week number sense RTI program this year, but were unsuccessful. As we embed RTI more, I think we have to be more targeted about how we do this with a focus on the importance of teacher-student relationships, ways of learning, good scheduling and fidelity to scheduling, adequate time and using RTI to focus on building number sense rather than in response to specific standards or topics. 
  • Project Base Learning: We employ scaffolded projects similar to the "floor-to-ceiling" approach that Jo Boaler suggests. I'd like to do more of this as I believe it could create greater enthusiasm and leaps in math learning and engagement. I am currently reading Boaler's fifth grade Mindset Mathematics book which lends many ideas as to how to build in more floor-to-ceiling meaningful project/problem based learning in math. 
  • Learning-to-Learn Behaviors and Mindsets: We spend time working with all students to demonstrate brain-friendly behaviors, research, and mindsets that promote optimal learning. This dispels myths that students hold and empowers what they can do to support their own learning. This year I will build this more by including a number of SEL activities during math class and other times during the day--this will further develop students' ability to learn with depth and success. 
  • Tech Integration: Currently we use Symphony Math and a few other tech programs to support student learning. We work to teach students how to use these programs to assist their math learning. Typically struggling students do not find this program to be inviting, and further many of those students do not have tech access at home therefore their skills are less fluid and frequent when compared to their classmates who do not struggle with math as much. I would like to employ more engaging apps and programs, but our access to these programs is limited by a very lengthy and detailed curation, application, and approval process--a process that doesn't match the need to regularly try out, change, and implement good tech programming for these students. We have bettered our ability to embed Symphony Math into the learning program and Symphony Math has improved in ways that matter too--this is positive. I continue to want to embed other programs into the math teaching and learning program. One program we have access to is Code.org, and I will study that this summer to learn how I might use that to as a viable intelligent assistant in the math class. Unfortunately SCRATCH and Khan Academy have been banned by my system, but perhaps now that Khan has a student-app, they will reconsider. I've written countless emails to advocate for these supports with no success. The year I used Khan Academy faithfully was the year that we were on the top list in Massachusetts for having many students who scored advanced on MCAS--I know this was due to our use of Khan Academy and it puzzles me why they have taken that use away from me. 
  • Professional Learning Community (PLC): We work together as a grade-level team of educators, coaches, special educators, ELL teachers, assistants, and administrators to support this teaching and learning. The PLC gives us a good platform with which to develop our collective approach to supporting these students, however I believe that the hierarchical approaches to leading the PLC in the past few years has diminished our PLC efforts somewhat. I believe a move to greater distributive leadership where educators have greater voice, choice, and leadership will uplift our PLC efforts in ways that matter. 
  • Assessment and Data Analysis: We regularly assess, collect ,and analyze data, however, some of our measures do not match the curriculum expectations. This is an issue we need to address as a team. We have done away with measures that did not match the curriculum, however I believe we've become a bit stagnant when it comes to how we measure and how and when we interpret data. As our superintendent suggests in his latest systemwide goals, we have to make our data and analysis a more fluid and targeted process. I look forward to this work. 
  • Homework Club: This year a homework club started. We have several students who fall into the challenge area, but only one of these students is included in the homework club. I do think that this club, however, will support greater growth since it is staffed by talented math teachers. The numbers of students in the club, however, challenge the support possible. The homework club this year was run by a talented teaching assistant and many high school students--the club's efforts were well supported and very successful. There is still room for support for this club and other at-school extra academic supports. Last year I ran a before school math club for several months that was very successful. I hope to do the same this year. 
  • Title One Support: Our school is a title one support. It's possible that this money could be used to support our efforts. It might already be used in this regard, but I'm unaware of that. I would like to see this money used earlier in the year with more targeted effort--I think this money can really help us to build more fruitful RTI efforts. 
I think that we can better our approach as a team by having more transparent, detailed, timely, organized, research-based conversations about what works best to teach all students. Good process is essential to the success of these conversations, and I believe that the colleague circle approach may be the best approach for starting these conversations.Too often educators are left out of these conversations and efforts are employed without educator voice. 

We also need to make sure that all students have access to technology at the start of the year. I wrote a lot about that this summer, and some administrators are currently working to try to make sure our students without at-home technology do have timely, updated tech access. This is currently a wonderful reality that has helped students greatly. 

Further some students who were approved for special education assessment and review, have not had that process started yet or the process was not approved by family members--that could help some of these students so we might think about how we would begin and/or advocate for those processes with greater timeliness. This was not a problem in the past year. 

As for me personally, I want to think deeply about this question and what I can do within the core math and RTI periods that I teach to help each of these students succeed. I also want to think about my relationship with the students that struggle in math and the way I team with families to promote greater math growth. In the days ahead, I'll explore this question more as I teach, work with students/colleagues, and reach for substantial student engagement, empowerment, and growth. If you have ideas for me, please let me know.