Blending Math Class With Student Buy-In

| By Sabrina Bernath

This summer, the DigitalJLearning Network enjoyed the distinct pleasure of taking 16 educators, from 16 different schools, to the 2014 ISTE Conference in Atlanta, GA. We asked each participant to share what they learned with you, our readers, here on our blog. Sabrina Bernath, Chair of the Math Department at The Frisch School, shares her reflections in this third installment of this new blog series.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the ISTE conference in Atlanta, Georgia as one of 16 scholarship recipients from the DigitialJLearning Network (DJLN).  It was an incredible opportunity for professional growth and I am still processing all of the exposure I had to innovative ideas and edtech companies.

The single most important thing I came away with from the conference and the DigitialJLearning sessions is the daunting but real understanding that my role in the classroom needs to change.  It not all about me.  As a former theater performer, I am comfortable being in front of people.  Through what I hope are entertaining and engaging lessons, I have become a polished and effective lecturer.  For 15 years I have enjoyed sharing my love, passion and knowledge of mathematics as the “sage on the stage.”  

In the past two years, though, I have begun to question if this approach is the best for today’s learners.  Through my exposure at ISTE and after talking with many wonderful and successful educators, I have come to the conclusion it is not and my classroom and those of my fellow math teachers need to change.  But how?

The first question I am faced with is “what method or technology would I be comfortable using as my partner in the classroom?”  If I am to give up my beloved role in the front (and ask other teachers to do the same), any new program needs to make the learning experience for my students at least equally as rich, or even better.  

Through the continued support and generosity of DJLN, I will be starting a small blended learning component to about a third of the math classes at The Frisch School using a program called Catchup Math.  Being relatively new to the idea of blended learning, I approached ISTE eager though to see what else is out there for future programs.  During the jam packed three days at the conference, I learned about several other incredible programs that can help math classes create a blended learning environment.

Think Through Math, a web-based math differentiation program, seems like an incredible tool with an advanced adaptive modality.  With students at many different skill levels in one course, this tool is able to respond quickly and effectively to what a given student’s proficiency and challenges.  While speaking with the company representatives on the vendor floor, I realized that too many computer programs bore the kids with “drill and kill” activities.  My sophisticated and busy dual-curriculum students would be quickly frustrated to have to repeat something they had already mastered.  Think Through Math might be a great option in the coming years.  

EdReady, a non-profit web based math readiness program, is unique in its focus on creating a personalized math study path tailored to each student’s selected future career goals.  Its focus on showing students what are required math skills for a specific career is particularly unique.  Too often, I feel my regular proclamation, to my upper classmen in particular, of “you will need this someday” falls on deaf ears.  The influence of an outside source, other than myself and their college guidance counselor, validating the importance of learning math cannot be underestimated.  

Lastly, KnowRe, another web-based differentiated blended learning program,  makes the collective student effort, not just the individual’s, matter as a class works towards a common goal such as a KnowRe-sponsored pizza party or even a check towards the classes’ favorite charity.  It doesn’t matter if Johnny only got through a few lessons and some of his friends finished many more lessons.  His effort still helps the class reach their predetermined goal.  I simply love the emphasis on teamwork and the ability to extend the classes’ effort beyond the classroom walls through a donation to a charity.  As a Jewish day school, which already heavily emphasize the importance of tzedakah, this aspect of the program in aligned with our religious goals.

As I mentioned earlier, in the coming school year the math department at Frisch will be running their first truly blended classes.  I have already purchased 200 licenses from Catchup Math, which allows the teacher to create customizable programs for individual students or for the whole classes.  At Frisch, this tool will be utilized in different ways depending on the course. In some classes it will be in place of homework out of the textbook, in others it will be to supplement test review.  In our lowest tracks, students will take the diagnostic test to determine the fundamental skills in which they lack proficiency.  The online component of the course will address those needs independently of their classwork. For instance, while all students learn Geometry in 9th grade, our weaker math students still need time to practice middle school math skills.  This allows a teacher to continue with the prescribed curriculum of Geometry while making sure students consistently work on their pre-algebra skills in preparation for Algebra 1 next year.

Prior to ISTE, Catchup Math gave me three months of free usage.  This was amazing because I was able, at no cost, to run a pilot of the program involving 40 students.  My colleague, Mrs. Elissa Katz, and myself learned a great deal about what will and won’t work for the coming school year.  In implementing this pilot I focused on the actual logistics: where and when were students going to work on the problems sets, how would it count towards their semester grade, and what was the teacher’s role in making sure the work was done.

After attending many reflective sessions at ISTE led by innovative edtech educators such as George Couras or Alan November, I realized I need to also think about how I want to explain this new initiative to our students.  I need to clearly articulate how this puts the learning into their hands.  We need students’ “buy- in” to this new learning model in order for the program to work.  Even with time built into their schedules and their effort reflected in their grades, if students are not invested in the program and in essence themselves, this whole component would flop.  

In these remaining weeks of the summer, I will be focusing on the way the program is introduced and explained to the students.  Rather than saying to them “you are required…”, I need to use language that conveys how implementing an online component to the course empowers their learning.  I need to show them how the real time assessments will illustrate what they have mastered and what they need to work on.  Rather than learning after the test is graded what ideas they were unclear on, Catchup Math will show them which problems are wrong and provide written explanations of why before they are being graded.  Through the use of the teacher dashboard, I will be able to see exactly what skills individual students are struggling with and can provide further instructions and work as needed. I will hopefully be able to convince them that they should be excited and eager to take on this new role.  They can, to some extent, determine the pace of the learning.  In my pilot, I immediately saw that some student work on all the problem sets in one night while other slowly and methodically worked through the problems and emailed me when they realized that they needed more help. 

By becoming active and engaged participants in this process, students will master the material on a deeper level in a more effective, customized way.  Their understanding and success is no longer resting solely on my shoulders. Hopefully they will also see that their knowledge-base is not limited solely to what I teach.  They have the skills to learn more or learn something more in depth if they choose   

With the right support and resources in place, our students will have the opportunity now to make real, authentic learning happen.  It is going to be an exciting new beginning.   I can’t wait for the start of the new school year.

Image Source: Office of Digital Learning, University of Notre Dame

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