Personalizing Math for Bear Creek Middle School Students

By Anthony Newbold

When you have students of varying needs, it’s not fair to set one bar, have all reach for it and determine success that way. If we meet them where they are, each and every kid will experience successes and be on the road to be a productive citizen.

Here at Fulton County’s Bear Creek Middle School in Fairburn, Georgia, we’re personalizing math instruction for all students, using mobile devices and a model that helps teachers customize learning to individual students’ needs, skills and interests.

Thanks to Fulton County taxpayers and the SPLOST one-cent sales tax, we’re able to provide mobile devices that help teachers better meet the needs of all students. And as the only Microsoft Showcase School in Fulton County (and one of 150 such schools in the world), Bear Creek has a whole-school personalized learning environment empowered by technology.

Station Rotation

I tell all of our teachers it’s not about the device. Even before devices, Bear Creek began to stress the use of data and how to use it in addressing the needs of students. We wanted to build an instructional model which alters the way the classroom works. We didn’t want the old model, where the teacher sat at the desk and taught to the middle in terms of ability since extremes at either end were not getting services.

So we designed a station rotation model based on data so teachers can now work with smaller groups. At Bear Creek, we also use an across classroom model where groups of teachers collaborate.

students, middle school, math

For example, in science one teacher will take a higher level group from three different classrooms, another teacher will take the middle-level students and another teacher provides instruction to those students who need further support. Students may switch classrooms to connect with the correct level.

Devices and PD

Bear Creek is in the first cohort of Fulton County School’s 1-to-1 device initiative. We were able to choose a device for our students, so our personalized learning team met multiple times to plan and review options. We wanted a fully functioning computer and keyboard, so we chose a Dell Latitude 11 inch full computer from our four options. Devices do help, giving constant access and allowing students who may start behind to have some of the same advantages.

middle school, math

Our next step was creating professional development for teachers centered around personalized learning. Fulton has seven learning principles for personalized, ongoing PD facilitated right at Bear Creek Middle School to incorporate the principles into practice. The shift to personalized learning is not going to happen overnight. It takes time, patience and willingness to want to do it for the students.

Personalized Math Program

Our personalized math program started this past year after Bear Creek was awarded a grant from the Georgia Governor’s office and Fulton County Schools Seed Funding. I attended an information session for Teach to One and was hooked. It’s exactly what we need. It builds students up from where they are, giving prerequisite knowledge.

We have sixth graders working on seventh and eighth-grade levels and we don’t hold them back. And we have some working at a fourth-grade math level who are likely frustrated and have a math phobia. The reason? They never experienced success in math. Students are re-grouped around shared needs.

middle school, math, students

With our personalized math program, it’s not all computers all the time; it’s true blended learning. A student may master a skill right away, or if not, the next day a student may get it in a different modality–for example virtual instruction on the same concept. It’s giving students the curriculum in different learning styles that I really like. Today we may be working together on a project, but tomorrow I may need to work independently. It is giving students exposure to skills that will assist them in life: learning to work with people, working in isolation and using technology.

And advanced kids are pushed along at their own pace. It gives them the opportunity to do projects, and dig deeper into content. We first tested in August of last year for baseline data. We experienced lots of growth with our sixth and seventh-grade students this past year.

Success By The Data

Our sixth-grade students started the year with 15% at or above grade level in math, and that number grew to 29% by the end of the year. Likewise, seventh grade grew from 25% at or above grade level to 31% by the end of the year. Growth is what’s driving us and making us happy about the program. We should not have an absolute bar of success in education. We need to adopt a growth mindset.

We are dedicated to building a culture of collaboration amongst professionals. Our belief is that this collaboration will help in providing a personalized learning experience for all students. To further build this culture we were excited about hosting our own Redefining Learning Conference this past spring. This conference was centered around innovation and the implementation of personalized learning. We invited 1,000 to 1,200 colleagues from our South Learning Community middle and high schools. Teachers, administrators, support staff and anyone else assisting with personalized learning at their schools or in the district were invited. This was the first U.S. school-led Redefining Learning Conference ever held, and also the largest in the world to date, with over 130 presenters. The mission was simple: to get together, collaborate and share ideas. This conference was such a success that the second is planned for March 2017.

middle school, teacher, students, math

At Bear Creek we are known for our innovative approach to teaching math. Our students are gaining confidence day by day as a result of experiencing successes often. Without personalized learning this would not be possible. Though we have been fortunate to receive grant funds and a program to assist with the heavy lifting, we are not yet satisfied, and will not be until all of our students have a personalized learning experience that allows them to grow and be successful.

We have established a team that is dedicated to personalized learning. The proper support mechanisms and personnel are in place. This disruptive approach to innovation is difficult on teachers, so we provide them with the same type of differentiated support as our students. This had made all of the difference! By providing our scholars with the appropriate level of support, incorporating technology and promoting student and adult collaboration, we are creating a personalized culture at Bear Creek that will yield positive results for our scholars.

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Anthony Newbold is principal and a parent at Bear Creek Middle School. Follow him on Twitter: @NewboldEDU

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