Education

Growing confident math teachers and students

October 03, 2016 by Cindy O'Dell

Education grant gives elementary school teachers in Woodlake new ideas for overcoming math fears. ‘There’s no such thing as a math gene.’

Number sense

A kindergarten student demonstrates his number sense for lead F.J. White teacher Terri Gutierrez.

A year ago if you asked a Woodlake School District elementary school student if they were good at math, you were likely to hear that the student a) didn’t like math or b) wasn’t born with a “math gene” or c) nobody in their family was ever good at math.

But stop by a classroom this year and you’ll see kindergarten students eager to explain how a group of dots can be added up by thinking of them as “one dot plus three more dots” or “two dots and two dots” or just four dots. You’ll see second-graders talking through a “who won the race” question by figuring out whether 25.9 minutes is faster or slower than 25.85 minutes by charting the tens, ones, tenths and hundredths and explaining their reasons.

What’s the difference? Thanks to a grant written by Brandman University and the school district, elementary school teachers are getting some extra attention this year to help them become more confident teaching math concepts and work on new instructional methods.

Emphasis on confidence

The state grant for $500,000 covers a two-year program of teacher training. In June, Brandman Professor Joe Walsh spent a week “raising the bar” on content for elementary school teachers in sessions organized by Brandman’s Visalia campus.

Kindergartners sing their numbers.

Kindergarteners sing their numbers.

The first thing he did was ask how confident they were about their ability to teach math. “Some were not confident, at all,” said Walsh, and many others rated themselves “not comfortable.” For five mornings, Walsh reviewed content from all the grade levels, relying on Brandman’s math and related curriculum. In the afternoon, representatives from Tulare County, Fresno County and Merced Offices of Education showed the teachers how to apply the content in their classrooms, introducing everything from number games to kite-building exercises.

By the end of the week, confidence levels rose for everyone.

Results are visible

Drew Sorenson

Superintendent Drew Sorensen checks in with a sixth-grade class at Woodlake Valley Middle School.

Woodlake Superintendent Drew Sorensen and Assistant Superintendent Glen Billington say they are already seeing results in the way both students and teachers approach math problems.

“We really needed it to be more rigorous at the lower grade levels, but none of our K-6 teachers had math as a major in college,” said Sorensen.

When students don’t have a strong number sense to build on, the more difficult concepts taught later become even more difficult, said Billington.

Kindergarteners are likely to reap the biggest benefit from the program because they’ve never been taught math any other way. Their teachers gather before school starts once a week as a “learning community” to talk about upcoming concepts as well as review what worked and what didn’t from the week before.

All seven kindergarten teachers agreed their students were now excited about math and eager to be called on. “It’s not just the teacher talking,” one explained. “They get to talk about how they got their answer.”

Group projects

Word problem

Fifth-graders in Sarah Doellefeld’s class work out a problem together.

As students move through the grade levels, they also begin to teach and learn from each other through group problem-solving projects. As they work, the classroom teachers move from group to group to offer real-time assessment and intervene as needed.

“We put a lot of emphasis on helping students persist,” said Sorensen. “We need to expect more.”

At Castle Rock Elementary, which serves the district’s third through fifth graders, Principal Robert Gonzales thinks the grant will help his teachers and his students develop greater conceptual understanding and accountability.

Fourth grade

Castle Rock Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Gary Mann checks in with a group of students working on a math problem.

Gonzales, who is also an adjunct faculty at Brandman’s Visalia campus, said the teachers are also teaching each other and spurring each other on to try new concepts.

“This grant helps us identify and work with the concepts needed for Common Core (California Standards),” said Gonzales.

Looking ahead

The ultimate goal of the grant is to improve Woodlake student math scores by 10 percent. It’s a difficult challenge, but that’s not stopping Sorensen, Billington, Walsh and others from thinking about what a grant for improving scores at the high school level might include.

“At the later grades, the teachers need methodology rather than the content. They have the content knowledge, but the way of doing things has changed with Common Core,” said Walsh. “The younger ones won’t have any problems (going forward). It’s like with computers. It’s not new to them. It’s all they know.”

The school district and Brandman will share what they learn from the program with other districts facing similar challenges. What started as an idea from School of Education Dean Christine Zeppos, was turned into a grant proposal by Brandman’s School of Extended Education and implemented by Brandman faculty members and administrators and teachers from Woodlake, could eventually become the model for schools across California.

For question regarding this grant, please contact Nancy Salzman, dean of Brandman School of Extended Education

Thinking about numbers in kindergarten.

Thinking about numbers in kindergarten.

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