Alaska Success Story
I did not grow up feeling mathematically empowered. I felt that math was a subject for "gifted" students and that average kids like myself would survive required math classes with minimal understanding. I learned quickly that memorization was the key to a passing grade. And after high school, who needed it!
Then I entered the world of classroom teaching and found myself on the opposite side of the teacher's desk. Looking out I saw a room full of smiling faces eager to embrace the subjects of math and science! There was no fear of failure in their eyes. There was no misconception about who can "do math" and who would be just another average Joe. Their [elementary] age did not hinder their enthusiasm to tackle the "hard stuff." They were ready. I wasn't! It was time for me to make some major changes in my whole philosophy about math, kids and learning. The first thing I did was take classes, workshops and training in math instruction. I reached out to colleagues I thought were strong teachers, and eventually learned that my own mathematical education was not a fault of mine, but the result of poor instruction. I had the misfortune of taking high school algebra and geometry [I didn't dare go beyond that!] with teachers who catered to the cream of the class, and failed to recognize I needed their support and attention, too. I was not about to become one of those teachers!
The Alaska Math Consortium offers classes for teachers just like me - math phobics! I signed up and spent three weeks of my summer realizing that I not only could "do math" but I loved it! I took the Advanced Institute the following summer and eventually became a facilitator myself. I searched for other classes, which addressed instruction in a more meaningful and hands-on approach. The more I learned, the more I longed to be stretched and challenged. To this day, I still have my eyes open for workshops or opportunities to further my knowledge in math, even with retirement just around the corner! I was drawn to classes, which broke math concepts down to a concrete level, using manipulatives to develop the visual thinker in me. [Oh, the delight I found when I learned about base ten blocks and algebra tiles!]
While my own mathematical needs were met through these classes, they also shaped my personal philosophy about math instruction. I have become more sensitive to the needs of all my students. The way I teach math is not unlike the way I look at reading instruction. New learning is based on prior knowledge. Students need to explore and manipulate objects in order to make sense of the mathematical world. As a teacher, it is my role to support their learning with as much scaffolding as they require in order to feel successful. As they become more confident learners, the support system is eventually removed - piece-by-piece. Students also learn best when they are guided to make discoveries on their own. "Drill and kill" techniques cannot lead to mastery as effectively as providing children with enough opportunities to practice through exploration and games. Playing "Go Fish For Ten" can help even the youngest students eventually realize that 14 + 6 = 20 "because 4 and 6 are 10 friends and 10 and that other 10 make 20!" I continue to use materials which allow my students "to see" their way through math concepts.
Over the years, I felt that my recipes for math were solid, with just the right ingredients to provide my students with a balanced program. Everyone was happy. Still, there was something missing. I knew that I needed something more - a dessert - involving math problem solving. I went in search of such a recipe on the Internet and came across the site for Exemplars. As I read it over, my mouth began to drool! This is exactly what I needed. So, when I came into some money [The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematical Teaching provided me with a check!] I signed up for the closest Exemplars workshop to Alaska, which happened to be in Texas!
The workshop's presenter was Deb Armitage, a former classroom teacher from Vermont. She literally kept me on the edge of my chair. I even held off "bathroom breaks" for fear I'd miss something she said. First she presented the overall idea behind Exemplars. Then she handed out problems, which had been tried and tested, just like a recipe in a test kitchen! We went over both the problems and the students' work, analyzing what children knew and could explain, and what was still missing. The rubric was invaluable for this! Finally, we got to roll up our sleeves, donned an apron and started cooking ourselves. Using the information Deb taught us and the rubric, we set about scoring problems. The more we did, the more we wanted to do! Who would have thought that sitting for two days in a windowless room could be so wonderful. The time flew!
I dreaded the thought of leaving Texas without the support of another colleague in my own district. I was the only Alaskan among so many Texans! But, I didn't really have to worry. Deb became my email support person. The more we emailed, the more confidence I gained. And so, now I really feel I have the perfect math program, complete with dessert! I felt so excited about my ability to teach students how to solve problems that I initiated a Math Club for third-fifth graders. [I teach a K-1 Multiage program.] We meet once a week after school just to solve math problems. They love it and so do their parents!
I'll be retiring at the end of this school year. While I have lots of plans for my retirement, one is to continue to keep cooking up great math recipes for kids. As a volunteer, I will be excited to work with students in the area of math. When I think about packing up my classroom for the last time, many things will be tossed or given to other teachers. But I will never give up my Exemplars Math binder! That's my recipe book! And whenever anyone asks about math, I hop up on my soapbox and shout the praises of EXEMPLARS!