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.