Students Thrive in Blended Math Program

by Jane Roberts, first appeared on Commercial Appel on 2/15
Early afternoon math class at Presbyterian Day School (Memphis) looks unusually like a think tank.
Wifi work stations are scattered around a large room. Boys of all ages are working individually or in groups. Some are sprawled across vinyl-upholstered cubes, others are lounging in black rubber “bungee chairs.” At one station, Philip Wunderlich, 12, is Skyping with a virtual tutor so familiar, he calls him Uncle Mark.
“We have boys working from the second grade to the 9th grade level in this room,” says headmaster Lee Burns, surveying a room quietly abuzz with soft conversation and the muted glow of laptops, iPads and interactive whiteboards.
“We use a lot of data, particularly formative assessments along the way, so we know how we need to adjust what this particular boy needs, which will be different from what another boy needs.”
Gifted and advanced students are not bored in class while others grapple with the metric system, graphing or integers. “They get an opportunity to do 7th, 8th, 9th-grade math if that is what they are ready for at the time,” Burns said.
And kids who struggle with math don’t much feel that sick-in-the-stomach feeling any more because everyone is working at their own pace. And based on overall improvements in math at PDS, the struggles aren’t lasting long.
Eight days are allotted for each math unit. Boys who think they understand the concepts may take the unit test on Day 4. If they score 90 percent or higher, they’re off to “guided challenge,” a range of math activities that allow them to work on more sophisticated problems, either virtually or with a teacher. Or they might look at the real-life ways math comes into play in people’s lives.
“You never want a child to be afraid to move ahead, to tackle more challenging material just because it is harder,” says assistant headmaster Susan Droke.
Boys who need more time, based on how they answer key questions in their math lectures, go to “learning circuit,” a revamped space in the school, flush with technology and cool, funky furniture.
For three class periods, they may work with Uncle Mark, with a camera on their paper-and-pencil work so he can see it via Skype. They may work individually with adaptive software that scales the difficulty of each question, based on each child’s level of understanding. Or they may be in the bungee seats, their interactive work on graphing or fractions, glowing on the wall in front of them.
On Day 8, these boys take the unit mastery test, the same test the other boys took earlier in the sequence.
“Our scores are stronger than before,” Burns said. “And anecdotally, students are much more engaged. So many boys now say their favorite subject is math. They love the approach. They own the learning, so there is great engagement in it.”
PDS is in its second year of smart math, a concept it adapted from things happening in charter schools and other public schools.
“The two that jumped out as we were doing our research were School of One in New York and Rocketship in California,” Droke said. “So off we went to visit.”
Rocketship Education is a charter management organization. It has been approved by the Achievement School District to take over a struggling public school in Nashville in the fall. Starting in the fall of 2014, Rocketship, which emphasizes individual learning, will be running at least one city school in Memphis.
This year, PDS is testing smart reading classrooms. It means learning specialist Abbie Fowler can looking at a student profile, based on all the stories he’s read into voice-recording software this year, and know if the boy is having trouble with summarizing what he’s read or drawing inferences, or both.
PDS is one of 65 K-12 schools author Grant Lichtman visited this fall on his tour of innovative schools. His reports are posted in his blog, The Learning Pond, including this “takeaway” from his Nov. 27 visit: “Traditional sit-and-get learning is virtually gone. Students own their learning and teachers are there to coach, lead, and mentor. Teachers are using every means of systems and design thinking to get students to find the deep meaning within subject areas.”

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