Teaching Ask the Mentor

Jason Kamras on Achievement

August 12, 2006 7 min read
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Jason Kamras

Kamras was a math teacher at John Philip Sousa Middle School in Washington, D.C., when he was named 2005 National Teacher of the Year. He’s a Teach For America alumnus and has a master’s in education from Harvard. Among the accomplishments of his eight-year career: a redesigned math curriculum that boosted standardized test scores; and establishment of the EXPOSE Program, in which kids use digital cameras to document their lives. Here are his answers to reader questions asked on our Web site. (Note: This is an expanded online version of the column that appeared in the print magazine.)

Can you describe how your innovative curriculum and instructional methods work together to engage students while enabling them to learn mandated math skills?

A concrete example might be useful. One of my techniques is to teach mathematics through photography. For example, “zooming” a lens (from a tight shot to a wide one, or vice versa) is really just changing its angle of view. When you “zoom out” a lens, you’re increasing its angle of view (from 60 to 120 degrees, for example). This is a great way to start a conversation about geometry because the students can literally see the differences between the angles.

How do you best cultivate a relationship with teachers, counselors, and students in an effort to continue to maximize the achievement of students after middle school?

Developing relationships (a critical component to increasing student achievement) really comes down to learning as much as we can about our colleagues, our students, and the communities in which we teach. That means asking lots of questions, listening, and exploring. Only then can we begin to develop trust and understanding, the basis of any meaningful relationship. I’d even go so far as to encourage every faculty member (and every homeroom, if your school can afford it) to spend a day at a ropes course at the beginning of the year!

How have the schools you’ve visited [as National Teacher of the Year] overcome the ESL language barrier when teaching and assessing for content knowledge in math?

Teachers across the country have provided some great ideas. Here are a few:

Create a “word wall” of math terms written in English and Spanish with visual representations of each word. Discuss and break down the terms in both languages. For example, “percent” is “por ciento” (literally “by 100”) in Spanish. This is great way to start a substantive conversation about the mathematical meaning of percent.

Always be on the lookout for language-based confusion. In one example, a teacher asked her students to draw on graph paper a “patio” around a pool and then find the area of the patio. One of her ESL students drew a piano! That’s what she heard.

Use test data about language strengths and weakness to pair children effectively for group work. And use math journals. Have the students verbalize their thoughts about a particular math problem to a partner and then record those thoughts in a journal. This helps develop language skills as well as mathematical reasoning skills.

Is there any need at all for in-service education? If yes, apart from content enrichment, what else makes it useful to experienced teachers?

Quality professional development is absolutely critical. Unfortunately, most PD offered in schools today is poorly planned, irrelevant, and untargeted. The era of half-day workshops on the fad of the month has to come to an end! I also believe that experienced teachers can benefit from quality PD. I’ve been teaching eight years, and I know that I still have so much to learn. In fact, I always will. I love that about teaching. I think most experienced teachers (understandably) get turned off by PD sessions because they’re rarely targeted to their specific needs. We need to make sure that PD instruction (just like our classroom instruction) is appropriately differentiated.

As a special ed coordinator, I believe effective differentiated classrooms ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education. Agree?

I agree! Effective differentiation is absolutely critical in all classrooms. It’s also one of the most challenging (and rewarding!) parts of teaching. Our students have incredibly diverse learning needs. It’s our obligation to ensure that we’re meeting every single one.

In light of current changes in special ed regulations, do you know of any good ways to assess the math skill levels of special ed students?

When assessing any students, I think it’s key to make sure we explore why a student is having difficulty with a particular math skill. For example, if a student has trouble with word problems, the issue may be reading, computation, or mathematical analysis. Understanding the “why” is the key to knowing what to do instructionally for the student. With students who have diagnosed learning disabilities, it’s important that we not assume that the source of confusion is the disability. It may be, but we must assess the “why” with all options on the table.

How can I help students prepare for standardized tests in a way that is meaningful and relevant to their lives with the kind of time constraints we have to work within?

This is a question that I’ve received quite a bit over the past year. I think there’s a false dichotomy between meaningful and relevant instruction on the one hand and standardized test preparation on the other. I would argue that the best way to ensure that our children are successful on their state tests is to provide them with rich educational experiences. I admit that such experiences do take longer to develop, teach, and assess. But they are unquestionably more effective than “coverage” approaches (rushing through objectives just to say we’ve done them). Student learn more and retain more when they can deeply explore content.

What specific resources do you find helpful in bringing students up to grade level?

I think it’s less about resources or intervention programs, and more about core beliefs. We must start with the belief that all children can achieve at the highest levels. Bear in mind that when I say “all,” I really mean all. Sadly, there are still too many educators who do not believe this. They may say they do, but their actions don’t mirror their words. I reject the proposition that some children are “good at math” and others “just don’t have the brains for it.” The innate-ability paradigm that has crippled our education system (and our children) for so many years must be dismissed. When taught appropriately, every child in America can pass an Algebra I exam in 8th grade and an AP Calculus exam in 12th!

What are the differences, if any, between measuring student achievement and student progress?

I suppose it all depends upon one’s definitions. Speaking strictly in terms of academics, for me, achievement is what a student knows or can do at a specific point in time. Student progress, on the other hand, is how far the student has moved toward a specific goal. We can also define these terms more broadly, taking into account non-academic objectives.

I have a master’s in education, and I’ve substituted and student taught. This year I’ll have my own 1st grade class. Any suggestions about how to get the class started during, say, the first three days of school?

I’ve never taught 1st grade, so I may not be the best person to ask. I can, however, offer a few tips that I think apply to all classrooms. First, set clear (and high!) expectations for your students. Let them know what you expect them to learn and how you expect them to treat each other. Once you set the bar high, children inevitably rise to the occasion.

Second, get to know your students and their families as best as you can. Nothing replaces the power of strong relationships in a classroom. I don’t mean to suggest that you should become friends with your students. Just make a concerted effort to learn about them and appreciate them as unique individuals with unique histories.

Third, remember that the best classroom-management system is a great, engaging lesson. Take the time to plan carefully so that your students will enter your classroom every day wondering, “What exciting surprises does s/he have in store for me today?!”

Could you tell me a bit about the EXPOSE program?

EXPOSE is an after-school digital photography program that I cofounded at [Sousa Middle School] in 1999. Participants in the program learn to use digital cameras and image-editing software in order to develop photo essays describing their lives, their school, and their community. The program endeavors to help the students use photography to tell their own stories in an effort to dispel the stereotypes that often bias depictions of children in low-income school systems. Students also study a wide variety of math and literacy concepts as part of their photography lessons.

The program is funded entirely through grants and donations from arts organizations, philanthropic foundations, and private individuals. Student work from the EXPOSE program has been exhibited in various venues throughout Washington, D.C., and has been honored by the mayor and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. For more information, see: www.exposeprogram.org.

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