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Math department efforts add up

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Six years ago, Joanna Burt-Kinderman and then Director of Federal Programs Terrence Beam had a novel idea – to slowly roll out the new math standards in order to give the students a fighting chance when Common Core was introduced into the curriculum.
Now, the students’ test scores are proving the roll-out worked.

The 2015-2016 math scores were recently released and Pocahontas County, as a whole, is ranked sixth in the state, with Pocahontas County High School’s ninth grade being ranked first.

It all began with a part-time position and an idea that instructional coaching for teachers can make a difference.

Beam hired Burt-Kinderman as a part-time mathematics coach, and she began working with the middle school and high school teachers on the new math standards. 

“I started six years ago in a very limited capacity,” Burt-Kinderman said. “We started it just as an experiment. I was working half-time at Marlinton Middle at the time, and I was really interested in the idea of instructional coaching and what you could maybe do with it.”

Over the years, Burt-Kinderman’s work with the teachers was reflected in the work of the students, so much so that her contract was expanded to encompass more hours and other schools.

“Four years ago, we started transitioning to the new set of standards which have gone by some different names now, but we started doing that gradually with our ninth grade and built up to the eleventh grade, so that the first year that the new tests came online, we had three years of that approach using those standards in high school,” Burt-Kinderman said.

Many of the county’s math teachers have followed Burt-Kinderman’s lead and taken pro-active roles, as well. Pocahontas County High School math teacher Leah Shinaberry has attended several seminars and recently joined the Better Math Teaching Network Improvement Council.

Shinaberry reported at the last Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting that she attends quarterly meetings in Boston, Massachusetts, to meet with teachers and discuss their classroom atmosphere and ways to improve on how they implement instruction.

“We have three different things that we’re looking at improving within our classrooms,” Shinaberry said. “The first one is making connections among mathematical concepts and connecting those concepts to real-world ideas. The second one is solving – making sense beyond just procedures, actually understanding the concepts and not just what steps you take to solve something. The third is on reasoning – communicating and justifying your own mathematical thinking as well as being able to critique somebody else’s reasoning.”

Now that the high school and middle school teachers have spent six years implementing the new standards, Burt-Kinderman has set her sights on elementary school. This year, she will spend part of her time in the elementary schools, helping teachers find inventive ways to teach math skills.

“The standards changed four years ago for everybody,” Burt-Kinderman said. “Since we were young, kids started learning their times tables in third grade. They still learn their times tables in third grade. They still work on counting in kindergarten. The big difference was kind of on the details. In elementary grades in particular, they made fewer math standards at each grade level and said it’s really important that kids master these.”

An example would be, instead of a student knowing how to add 17 and 4, they need to know several strategies on how to add 17 and 4.

Burt-Kinderman said it is important, especially in elementary school, to focus on fluency. Instead of having students recite times tables over and over again, fluency is more about making sure they understand the tables and are not just parroting back what the teacher says.

Also important in elementary school is keeping students engaged and Burt-Kinderman said she has implemented play as part of the math lessons because it makes math fun for the students, and they learn at the same time.

“Play is a really important part of developing long-term conceptual understanding, so what we’re trying in all the elementary schools – either in class or as homework, or preferably to me, both – we’re trying to get all elementary kids playing some math games.”

The games require a regular deck of cards and dice. The PTOs of each elementary school bought decks of cards and dice for each student in order for them to practice at school and home.

Some of the games sound familiar, but have a mathematical twist to them.

“A simple version of the games we play is ‘Make 10 Go Fish,’” Burt-Kinderman said. “So that game, you’re playing Go Fish, except when you have a seven, you’re not asking for another seven, you’re asking for a three. You’re asking for the card that makes the ten.

“Just little variants like that on games can really boost kids’ fluency quickly,” she continued. “I have seen a little bit of anecdotal evidence of it just with the teachers who are playing these games every day with their students. There is a whole long list of games you can play and, ideally, I’d love to see this become our new homework routine for elementary schools – just really having that good family bonding time playing some math games with your parents and getting that number sense, and getting that mental math quicker in a fun way.”

While the system has worked and the students are showing great gains in their math abilities, Burt-Kinderman said there is always room for improvement.

“I think our big overall gain allows us to stop being worried about whether or not we’re generally headed in the right direction and allows us to start getting more refined,” she said. “Generally, we’re getting better so where are the spots that we’re not moving so quickly and would like to be able to look more carefully. Whether those are grade levels or individual math concepts, it allows us to get much more precise with the solutions that we’re trying to come up with together.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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