Our Journey Toward Equity in Mathematics (Part 1)

After falling in love with teaching mathematics in the classroom, I knew that I wanted to eventually end up in a learning support role for mathematics instruction.   Shortly after attending a Math Add+Vantage training offered by our district Title 1 department, I accepted a position as a K-5 Numeracy Coach.  I was trained shortly after as a Math Recovery Intervention Specialist.

I spent six years working with teachers on intervention and instruction.  The schools I worked in had some of the highest (over 85%) free and reduced lunch rates in our district.  Students came to us with varied educational backgrounds, many with very few experiences in numeracy.   In Title 1 Math, we utilized an instructional configuration for Math Workshop that the team had created based on the Comprehensive Literacy Model.  I worked with teachers to get math workshop and guided math set up in their rooms for those six years.  We looked at data, we visited other classrooms, we pre-assessed and re-assessed.  Our students were showing growth, but they weren’t making huge gains in proficiency.  The question was, why?

I learned many lessons in my years as a coach, but probably the one that has influenced my philosophy on education the most is that it is possible to intervene too much; and we were doing it.  I had set my expectations for students too low and was not exposing them to tasks that allowed them enough time and space for productive struggle.  We were so concerned with meeting students “where they are” that we had completely shifted instruction to intervention and removed the rigor.  I’d like to say that this realization came overnight, but the truth is it came after years of reading, learning, teaching, reflecting, and examining my practice.  To be honest, I’m still on the journey.

Two years ago, I accepted the curriculum coordinator position in our district for K-12 Mathematics.  The position had been re-imagined and was posted as Coordinator of 21st Century Numeracy.  When I accepted my current position, I was charged immediately with putting in place a math workshop model for all of our elementary buildings.  I was excited about this because I knew it would help teachers be more purposeful about instruction and this created opportunities to open dialogue about student understandings and next steps for instruction.

I told myself that we were doing workshop right because we had flexible groups that changed regularly.  But the truth was, in practice, that wasn’t the case in every classroom and even with flexible grouping, we were still tracking students into ability groups that stayed fairly stagnant.  Even though our practices were perhaps the best case scenario for math workshop, we were missing the boat on many other aspects of high quality instruction.

I also struggled with where and when to use high quality tasks such as 3 Act math tasks.  Our current structure did not allow for those opportunities.

It was really a perfect storm that led me to my current understandings and beliefs.

Jo Boaler‘s book, Mathematical Mindsets, spoke to my heart.  The findings that she proposed based on brain research that a) everyone can learn math at high levels, b) mistakes are really important in the learning process, and c) we must value depth over speed, made me look at our practices through a new lens.

It was Dan Meyer‘s Ted Talk that introduced me to 3 Act Math years and years ago that helped me develop my belief in problem based learning (and become obsessed with creating 3 Act math tasks for elementary).  I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few of Dan’s sessions at conferences since then and his words stuck with me, “Be Less Helpful.” 

I couldn’t reconcile those words against some of our instructional practices.  Everything we had designed to support students was about being more helpful – which had the effect of making them helpless.  We noticed that when students faced something difficult, they would immediately ask for help instead of persevering.  (For my thoughts on praise and learned helplessness, check out my prior blog post, How Do I Change Math Class Tomorrow?)

It was Robert Kaplinsky‘s Open Middle problems that provided the perfect model of how a task with multiple entry points could allow all students to engage in high quality math tasks.

It was Christopher Danielson‘s books, Which One Doesn’t Belong and How Many?, that tugged at the importance of sense making.

It was Sherry Parrish‘s book, Number Talks, that allowed me to look at fact fluency and number sense in a whole new light.

It was Brian Bushart‘s Numberless Word Problems, Steve Wyborney‘s Estimation Clipboard, Fawn Nguyen‘s Visual Patterns…the list goes on and on.

It was Graham Fletcher‘s link between 3 Act Math and the 5 Practices that had me looking at the power of combining high quality tasks and intentional teacher moves.

In 2017, at the NCSM National Convention, I was given a copy of Jennifer Lempp‘s Math Structuresnew book, Math Workshop.  In her book, Jennifer proposed a mix of guided math days and what she calls task and share days.  Task and share days were essentially days in which students work in heterogeneous groups to solve problems and share their solutions with the class. 

It was after reading her book that I realized it was time to modify our instructional model.  The following year we introduced two instructional models: Math Workshop days and Problem Solving days.  

That was our first step in a journey toward equitable teaching practices.

I truly believe that the lack of quality tasks (with multiple entry points) is the reason we have struggled with mathematics instruction for so long and why we have not been able to shift our pedagogy from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction.  As the list above clearly shows, that time is over.  In my future blog posts, I will share other open source resources for high quality curriculum that puts students in the drivers seat of enduring understanding.

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