Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Math Instruction at BCS

With the shift to Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM), the benchmark for math mastery is no longer about simply producing a “correct” answer. Gone are the days where students are asked to fill in endless worksheets to show excellence in mathematics. Timed multiplication tests are no longer the barometer for high achievement. So one might wonder: What is this “new” math that our children are tasked to learn?

The CCSSM is not “new” by any means but rather, developed to raise the level of rigor in previous math standards to ensure that the math learning at one level builds and supports the levels above it. Still, it is not enough to have standards by which to measure our growth and understanding. As parents and educators work together to support student learning, our own beliefs about mathematics and math instruction must shift as well. Math is no longer about simply using a formula; it is about understanding how to derive a formula and then determining its usefulness. Math is no longer about the teacher talking and the student listening; it is about being an active participant while collaborating and communicating ideas. Math is no longer about predictable worksheets; it is about authentic experiences with real-time constraints. Math is no longer self-contained; it is about integration. Math is no longer about skimming the surface; it is about stretching and deepening our knowledge. So one might wonder: How do we get there?

Much like an open-ended problem, there is not just one “right” path. At BCS, math instruction is carefully designed to look and be different because we believe in meeting the needs of all our diverse learners with a variety of proven teaching practices. In first grade, a lesson begins with a short introduction to the big math idea for the day. From there, students rotate to “centers” such as “math with someone” for a joint activity, “math by myself” for independent practice, “math with the teacher” for differentiated work and “math with technology” for integrated skills practice. This style of instruction engages children in ways that allow for student choice while developing independence and autonomy all while having ample time to practice 21st century skills such as teamwork and responsibility.

In a fourth grade lesson it opens with a question: “What are the defining attributes of a triangle?” The class is silent as everyone engages in private think time. Moments later, as the teacher facilitates, discussions erupt from all corners of the classroom and a dozen ideas fill the air. Quickly, the lesson transitions to a whole group discussion led by students’ ideas. Hands shoot up immediately as children volunteer to share what they know, as well as some misconceptions moderated by the teacher. A short video follows and again, children are engaged in a discussion  and encouraged to talk about the mathematics using “I notice…” and “I wonder…” statements. A team task follows and high engagement and energy returns. The lesson, driven by student voices, builds upon students’ prior knowledge while subtly introducing new ones.

In a fifth grade class, the teacher poses a situation: “I need to paint 4 walls of a room. Each wall requires one-third of a gallon of paint. Every wall needs to be painted evenly but I am unsure how much paint to buy and I don’t like to overbuy. Find solutions to my problem. Be prepared to present your case with a written proposal supported with visual models as evidence. BEGIN!” Children quickly break up into teams of their choosing and begin sharing ideas. Across the room you can hear students saying, “I’m not quite sure how that would work but it’s worth trying.” and “What if we…?” and “Wait, how come…?” Work of every caliber is strewn across tables and in every child’s hand is a math tool of their choice: a ruler, colored pencils, unit blocks, whiteboards, etc. A flurry of activity takes over the room as children are challenged to push their understanding of fractions beyond the standard algorithm by defending their work through the use of visuals, models and alternative solutions.

At BCS, teachers understand the importance of integration with other subject areas through the use of Project-Based Learning (PBL) units. This style of learning and teaching is not for the faint of heart but if you are looking for excitement, engagement and challenge in math - this is it! Through PBL, students become adept at applying math in all situations at all times. In second grade, students are tasked to to design a new state based on their math and social studies units. Teams work together to use geometric nets to erect city buildings and businesses. They use map skills learned in social studies to create the infrastructure for roads and highways by thinking about parallel, intersecting, and perpendicular lines. All the while, students have to ensure that their work is meeting the needs of the driving question.

The math program at BCS is tethered to our mission of developing the whole child and along with CCSSM, we are raising the bar for children of all abilities to feel successful not just in math, but well beyond college and career readiness. Our approach may not look like what math looked like 20 years ago but that is OK since our commitment is about preparing children for successful futures, not the past. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Leveraging Silicon Valley Innovation in the Classroom

BCS recently partnered with Cisco to create a unique, experiential learning opportunity for our 6th - 8th grade students. The first-ever "Innovate Together" Hackathon provided our middle school students with the opportunity to work with some of the valley's leading programmers, engineers and entrepreneurs, and will serve as a model for Cisco's future work with other schools.

VP and General Manager, Jeanne Beliveau Dunn, describes the collaboration in her blog: Invest in Experiential Learning to Create a Digital Ready Workforce

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Cultivating Creativity Through Choice

At Bullis Charter School, creativity and curiosity are considered vital 21st Century skills. To help students unlock and pursue their individual dreams and passions, we offer a rich array of co- and extra- curricular classes. These ‘choice’ activities allow students to explore their own talents and interests and help to develop the whole child. Co-curriculars are held once per week during the regular school day. Each child participates in two co-curricular activities per semester and every BCS teacher is required to develop and lead two of these activities. This year, students were offered an incredible array of co-curricular courses, including picture book writing, advanced Lego robotics, ceramics, public speaking in Mandarin, and web design. Extra-curriculars are also taught by BCS’s homeroom and specialist teachers and are available to every student, but they are optional, after school activities. Extra-curriculars include everything from sports, color guard, and dance lessons to math games, chess club, and fine art classes.

A brand new co-curricular offered to BCS first and second grade students this year is called “Engineering Design with Wood Blocks.” First grade teacher Mrs. Ly created this activity and begins the class each week by telling a story about a harmonious town in a far away land called Peace Town. Everyone in this town lives together in harmony and everyone helps each other out.  However, to integrate engineering design into this activity, the story always ends with a problem that the students need to solve for the people of Peace Town. This type of problem solving develops the students’ design thinking skills. It also helps them to build empathy since they need to emphasize with the people of Peace Town and to understand the problem before they can begin to devise solutions. For example, when challenged to create ways to let visitors into the town, the students created a musical buzzer that when rung, makes beautiful music. As the children explained, “the people of Peace Town are peaceful people and want to hear beautiful and peaceful sounds.”

In Mrs. Ly’s classroom there is a dedicated “Construction Zone” where students use wooden blocks to build their solution prototypes. Although they can choose to work collaboratively or alone, once one or two students begin to construct something other kids often join in, sharing their ideas and expertise. Some of the students ask if there are more blocks they can use or other materials they can add to their creations, but just like engineers in the real world, they are instructed to create their design using the supplies on hand. The students must talk through their ideas, collaborate with their partners or teams, and include lots of detail in their planning. Using this active learning model, these young students have built some amazing structures. Their creations remain unaffected inside the construction zone throughout the week and every Friday the students clean up the area and start all over again on a new structure. The students also write in
their journals about what they have built and why, and they can refer to pictures Ms. Ly has taken during their building session to help remind them of what they built. This encourages them to include lots details in their writing and reflections.

The students have developed a real passion for their design and building co-curricular and it is obvious that they are having a great time working with friends, collaborating, and problem solving. After the first session, students asked Mrs. Ly if they could stay after school and keep building. One student even asked if it would be possible to stay and build if his mom came in to supervise. Clearly, these young engineers are just getting started!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

BCS Mandarin Program

BCS’s World Language program, available to all students K-8, was designed to support the school’s mission to graduate students who are confident, global citizens.  Mandarin and Spanish instruction are offered to students several times per week and much of the core content, traditionally taught in English, is integrated and reinforced in these language classes. 

BCS educators researched the benefits of many world languages before deciding to offer Mandarin instruction at the elementary level. Almost 900 million people worldwide speak Mandarin, making it a prominent language in both eastern and western cultures.  Research shows that children benefit from learning a tonal language like Mandarin at an early age, as it helps develop musical ability and pitch.  In addition, learning a non-alphabetic language activates different parts of the brain as young learners process the characters and develop visual-spatial analysis.

At BCS, all Mandarin teachers are native speakers and bring with them a deep knowledge of the language and culture.  By utilizing technology such as podcasts and on-line collaboration tools, the Mandarin team is able to provide differentiated instruction for all students, whether they are beginners or native speakers and whether they enter the program at kindergarten or middle school.

Public speaking is an important feature of the BCS Mandarin program. Students are required to present to their class at the end of every learning unit, reinforcing their learning and providing numerous opportunities to practice speaking Mandarin. The students’ regular homeroom teachers say that these presentations really help the students improve their public speaking skills, and build their self-esteem and confidence. Please enjoy some of these Mandarin presentations below!

Kindergarten students share the names of shapes:

Second grade students role-play how to buy and sell fruits.

Fourth grade students produce a Chinese shadow show, which supports their study of zoo habitats.

Fifth graders role-play ordering food in a Chinese restaurant. The students developed their own scripts and printed them in Chinese characters.