Monday, January 13, 2014

Guest Blog: Transforming Math Instruction (Part 1)

We are blessed to have TWO guest bloggers this month! Kellie Lambert and Jessica Beeler, 4th grade teachers at Rutledge Elementary, have transformed their approach to math instruction to provide students the opportunity to explore, discover and uncover important mathematical topics. Both of these educators were willing to share their journey through a guest blog. First, we will hear Kellie Lambert's perspective on how she is teaching mathematics differently this year. I hope you will be inspired by her courage to try something new and different! Thank you, Kellie, for sharing your journey! 
This is my 9th year teaching 4th grade math and every year I feel like I pour my heart and soul into my math instruction every day and while some might be satisfied with the results I get, I have never been completely satisfied.  I have always known in my heart that there had to be a better way to approach math instruction where I’m able to reach more kids faster and take them further. 

I feel like I try to completely revamp my math instruction every year in order to find what works.  I’m constantly reflecting, researching, analyzing data, and attending numerous professional development sessions in hopes of finding new and better ways to improve math.

I have a tendency to try new big ideas and if I don’t see improvement, revert back to the mediocre approach that I’ve always known.  In fact, a coworker once asked me, “Have you ever wondered if the reason you feel like your students aren’t successful is because you completely change everything every year, and you never really give any of your ideas a chance to see if they actually work or not?” 

Hmm…well, that was an interesting thought that made me really start reflecting on whether or not my NEXT new big idea for math instruction would be the one that works.  I ultimately decided that if I was going to try a whole new approach (again), that I should seek advice from the experts.  I decided to get in touch with Beth Chinderle, one of our district’s elementary math facilitators. 

Beth Chinderle met with me before school started this year and we discussed my next big idea.  While Beth never discouraged me from moving forward with my idea, it quickly became evident that there was a far better way to approach math instruction than the route that I was headed in.   Beth Chinderle basically blew my mind with her ideas for math instruction in the elementary classroom and her philosophies on problem solving.   I held on to every word and couldn’t wait to collaborate with my coworker, Jessica Beeler about how we could improve our own math instruction. 

Jessica and I shared ideas back and forth and she was the one who had a stroke of genius.  After discussing Beth’s Chinderle’s visit (along with all of her shared wisdom), our own philosophies on math instruction, and considering the research that’s out there, Jessica came to the conclusion that if we simply flip our problem solving approach that we could change everything we know about teaching math. 

We decided to take a risk and go for it.  As we started sharing our new approach with others, we quickly realized how much of a mind shift our idea truly was.

Flipping the Problem Solving Model:
When we introduce a new math skill, we introduce it to our students in a word problem and allow them to explore their own approaches.  We have eliminated front-loading the students with strategies, tricks, and methods to guide them towards the correct answers.  Instead, we allow them to explore, discover, and draw their own conclusions about new math concepts.  For instance, when we started our division unit, we started it off with a division word problem.  Most of our students had never been taught division, however, they were all able to solve the problem correctly.   How was this possible?  Our students had enough prior knowledge to be able to use a variety of strategies to help get the right answer.  We then had students copy their strategies on computer paper and we talked about them as a whole class.  The division learning came naturally through our classroom problem solving talks.  Students started noticing patterns and wanted to try the approaches their classmates had tried.

When we start with problem solving to introduce a new math skill, it serves as a pre-assessment for us.  We’re able to quickly determine how much prior knowledge our students have and how much they don’t know.  We use what we learn from the problem solving to help guide our instruction.  Once we’ve explored with problem solving, we’ll go back and do some small group or whole group instruction about our new math skill in order to help fill in the gaps.  Then, the students can’t wait to attack the original problem we gave them all over again or attack a new problem. 

It’s really been eye-opening to watch the transformation in our math classrooms.  Our students take more risks, they aren’t afraid of a challenge, and they value the ideas and opinions of the others around them.  We’ve noticed that our students are developing stronger math foundations and that they’re able to apply their math knowledge in numerous situations when it’s presented to them in a variety of ways (something we’ve always struggled with in the past).

We’ve also incorporated Number Talks into our math routine and the discussions are remarkable.  The first thing I realized about number talks was that I should’ve been doing these for the past 8 years.  It’s fascinating to watch the students gain confidence and share their strategies despite whether they get the right answer or not.  The greatest thing to watch is when a student is sharing a strategy that didn’t lead to the correct answer and the self-discovery that takes place as they figure it out on their own.

This is the first year that I have ever been really excited about math because I finally feel like we’re on the right track.  In the past, I’ve felt like there were pockets of greatness here and there, but overall, I still felt like there was so much more that still needed to be done. 

This year has been an incredible ride and I wouldn’t have wanted to take it with anyone other than Jessica.  It’s amazing to work alongside someone who has so much passion for teaching math and who truly understands what works for kids.  After what I’ve seen this year in math, I can’t fathom teaching math in any other way.  I think we’ve finally discovered the next big idea that actually works and I can’t wait to see where this journey takes us!

Please feel free to leave a comment or question below for Kellie. Next Monday, we will post Jessica Beeler's perspective and hear her thoughts. Stay tuned!

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