Posted on 11 February 2015.
As students settle in at their desks, Chisholm Trail Middle School math teacher Catherine Powell makes a few opening remarks before setting a timer and turning her students loose to solve the graphing problem projected on the whiteboard.
Powell wanders through the room listening to the discussions in the small groups about the problem before selecting one student to go to the front of the class and show how she solved it. Immediately, other students ask questions and give alternate solutions. There are also more group talks and a little debate about using fractions for the solution or converting the fraction to a number.
GUIDING THE WAY – Chisholm Trail Middle School math teachers Richard Kleckner, Catherine Powell, Cristi Ludwig and Misty Taylor stand in front of some of the anchor charts used in lessons. They will be presenters at the Texas Middle School Association Conference later this month. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty
“[The debates] are totally student-initiated,” Powell explained before class.
And as fellow math teacher Richard Kleckner adds, they are not unusual. “There are sometimes heated debates on math.”
As the school’s math department head, Misty Taylor, pointed out, this dialogue between students is as essential to the math classrooms at Chisholm Trail as multiplication or addition. Here, students dictate much of the discussion.
“We act as facilitators,” Taylor said of herself and her fellow teachers. “We’re putting the learning on them.”
This method of teaching math is part of Northwest ISD’s POST (Pedagogy of Observable Student Thinking) initiative, which challenges students to learn the concepts and skills through non-traditional teaching, including helping their peers and leading the lessons.
SHOWING HOW IT’S DONE – Maggie LeMasters shows her fellow students how to solve a graphing problem during math class. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty
“It’s not your typical math classroom,” Taylor said.
Kleckner adds: “In traditional rooms, students sit in rows with the teacher up front. We’ve gotten away from that. We work more collaboratively.
“We leave them to say, ‘I’m going to figure this out.’ If they can, it’s more likely to stick. There’s also a better understanding and deeper understanding of the concept.”
The Chisholm Trail team of math teachers – Taylor, Kleckner, Powell and Cristi Ludwig – will share their experience at the Texas Middle School Association Conference Feb. 26-28. Their presentation is called “Transforming Secondary Math Classrooms One POST at a time.”
Taylor said their main goal during the presentation, along with telling the benefits of the method, will be relaying the need to develop a strong support system among teachers and administrators.
“That support component is huge,” Taylor said.
MAKING THE ROUNDS – Chisholm Trail math teacher Catherine Powell stops to help Lindsay Dominguez and her partners Morgan Miller and Layton Fowler with a problem during class last week. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty
Chisholm Trail Assistant Principal Amy Jo Wagner said the school district started adapting POST seven years ago. At first it was difficult for the teachers to work with the concept of flipping the classroom.
“The first year was a struggle,” Kleckner said. “That kid would raise their hand with a question. You’d ask them if they talked to their group yet. We want you to use all your resources before coming to the teacher.
“We got a lot of parent emails at first. Most of our students were used to the traditional classroom,” he said. “Once you explain it to them they understand.”
Wagner agrees that it was a learning process for teachers, students and parents.
“It’s a culture shift,” Wagner said. “Our core belief is, the best way to learn is from each other.”
Each class period begins with a quick opening on the day’s topic, from solving quadratic formulas to graphing. After that starts the solo time.
“At the beginning we called it struggle time,” Kleckner said.
This “struggle time” is an essential part of POST as students must try to figure out the solution on their own, also coming up with questions for the teacher or classmates about things they don’t understand.
“It’s not just five minutes of sitting there,” Kleckner said.
As Ludwig points out: “They learn through that struggle.”
After that solo time, teachers ask students to go into partner time to work collaboratively on the problem and discuss a solution. But the partner who can best explain the problem may not be the person next to a student.
“We give them the autonomy to walk across the room and ask someone a question,” Kleckner said.
The teacher continues to flow through the room and asks questions to the groups.
“The word ‘why’ is said hundreds of times in a class period,” Kleckner said.
To wrap up a lesson, a closer is picked out to go to the front of the room and work through the solution and answer questions. Kleckner said the instructors usually have a short rehearsal with the closers before they start.
Taylor said teachers try to call on different students to handle the closing.
“They have to step out of their comfort zone,” she said.
Powell added: “It is uncomfortable for them to get up there. We want them to get comfortable. We want them to share where they make mistakes.”
While one is closing, other students ask questions and take notes – taking responsibility to learn from their peers.
During each lesson, the focus isn’t just on coming up with the right answer. It’s learning the process of how to solve the problem in the future.
“As you’re doing a math problem, you come up with different ways of doing it. You may come up with two or three,” Kleckner said. “Kids can pick the best way to work with their brain.”
The strategy of teaching is working, according to Wagner.
“The data shows scores went up, and we’re sticking with what’s working,” Wagner said.
Teachers say more important than just passing standardized tests, they are witnessing progress. Students who were well below the passing mark are moving toward a passing grade or meeting standards.
“If that growth pattern continues, they will eventually be passing,” Ludwig said.
But it’s not just about scores and passing. It’s the other benefits where teachers gain rewards.
“To see their confidence build up is great,” Powell said.
The POST method has been carried on to high school and the principles used in other subjects. The teachers expect these skills to benefit the students not just in the classroom moving forward.
“When they get out in the real world, they will have to work with partners and be able to solve problems,” Kleckner said. “This is part of getting them future ready.”