What do you do when you discover at the start of the school year that your fourth-grade students have large numerical reasoning gaps and the math skills of beginning-of-the-year second-grade students?
Math educator Sara Liebert, an Instructional Reform Facilitator at John Muir Elementary School in San Francisco, California, found herself in that exact situation in the fall of 2015. Sara shares her experience and how mathematics thought leader Marilyn Burns guided her through this teaching dilemma:
John Muir Elementary School is a Title 1 elementary school. I support its teachers in math, and I teach a fifth-grade math class daily. This was my first year in the dual role; previously, I was a classroom teacher, with a majority of my teaching experience being in grades 3–5.
I had the opportunity to meet Marilyn Burns when she observed as a guest teacher in my fifth-grade classroom during the spring of 2015. She reached out to me afterward and asked, “What are you going to do tomorrow?” I had no idea! Luckily, she offered to chat and think through some next steps. From there, our collaboration around my math instruction continued, and Marilyn began to visit Muir to try out and model lessons for me with my own students. It was an extraordinary and beneficial learning experience.
The following school year, 2015–2016, I was assigned to teach fourth grade. I had spent the previous five years teaching fifth grade and had never taught fourth graders. To prepare, Marilyn and I continued to collaborate throughout the summer around my new grade level. At the start of the school year, Marilyn and Lynne Zolli, a teacher and math author/consultant, came to my classroom and individually interviewed students to assess their numerical reasoning abilities. This helped us gain an idea of what the students knew and informed me about how to begin their math instruction.
We were presented with a dilemma. All my students had large numerical reasoning gaps and the math skills of students two years behind their grade level. Marilyn and Lynne recommended that I look at a modular intervention program so we could meet the students where they were mathematically and provide intervention in order to help them catch up.
I agreed. My fourth graders needed an intervention program to learn the math standards that relate to whole number addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. Marilyn and Lynne were available to help me understand the progressions of the lessons and model lessons with my students. We spoke weekly by phone, and they visited my classroom many times throughout the year. In early spring, they interviewed students again to assess their progress.
I structured my 70-minute math block with a combination of number talks, lessons, and a math menu. Before meeting Marilyn and Lynne, I had been doing number talks daily, but this modular program and setting up a math menu were new to me. I had used math centers, but I wasn’t able to keep up with the organizational component that they required. For information about math menus, two resources from Marilyn were helpful. One is an article she wrote for Educational Leadership. The other is her more recent blog post. I found that the math menu provides time for students to engage with concepts and skills through games and lesson extension activities. It also provides me with a way to differentiate instruction and better meet all my students’ needs.
After 10 years of classroom teaching, I felt that this year I was finally
teaching math successfully.
Within the first month of teaching my first module (Addition and Subtraction A), I began to notice changes in how my students interacted and engaged in math class. The first week of school, I had numerous students who wanted to put their heads down during math and completely disconnect. It was as if they had never felt a successful moment around math and decided that learning math just wasn’t for them. However, as they noticed that they could be successful with the math, heads started to rise, backs straightened, and students became engaged! Not only were they engaged, they were enjoying math class. As my students’ confidence and willingness to learn math grew, so did their understanding. Based on the results from several assessments, my students showed significant growth.
Find out how Sara’s success and this professional learning partnership ultimately grew to include teachers and students in grades 2–5 at John Muir Elementary, and learn more about Do The Math, the proven intervention program they used. Read the full case study and view faculty video testimonials, here.
A Note from Marilyn Burns
It’s been wonderful to have the opportunity to work with Sara and with the entire John Muir Elementary School staff. It’s a way for me to stay connected with classrooms and continue to learn from students. And it’s wonderful to see how much the teachers are invested in and enjoying teaching math. I look forward to continuing to share my experiences this year on my blog.