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Teaching Opinion

‘I Am Doing My Best': Teaching Math During the School Closure Crisis

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 09, 2020 15 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question is:

What does math instruction look like in the age of the coronavirus?

The first and second posts in this series featured commentaries by New York City high school math teachers Bobson Wong and Larisa Bukalov. They are authors of The Math Teacher’s Toolbox (Jossey-Bass, 2020) and recipients of the Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship.

In Part Three, Cindy Garcia, Shannon Jones, Elissa Scillieri, Ed.D., and Beth Brady shared their experiences.

Today, Sally Boerschig, Katie Kenahan, Avery Zachery, and Bonnie Tripp contribute their commentaries.

It isn’t “perfect”

Katie Kenahan is the Riverside Middle School math department coordinator and an 8th grade teacher in East Providence, R.I.:

It was around 1:45 p.m. on March 13th, and we had just finished celebrating Pi day (one day early). I was cleaning up the remnants of Table Talk pie crumbs in my classroom during my planning period while chatting with coworkers about the possibility of school being canceled for a week, maybe two, and how surreal the idea of that was. We were so naive...

Fast forward six weeks later, and here we are. As an educator, this has been the most challenging obstacle I’ve had to tackle during my career. Not only is it my task to remotely teach my 8th graders the math we had left to cover this year, content they need to be successful with high school material, but to also heal their broken hearts and comfort them through a computer...which is not an easy feat.

I continue to teeter between the importance of delivering the content and the emotional well-being of my students. I have a unique perspective from teaching PSAT/SAT prep classes...seeing just how much the content builds and how important grade 8 math is to their base of knowledge for algebra and geometry. On one hand, I am trying to hang on dearly to the content—providing as many meaningful lessons, videos, practice activities, and one-to-one help as I can. On the other hand, I see my students hurting—missing their friends, their teachers, and coping with the loss of the end of their 8th grade year and all of the celebrations that go with it.

So what am I saying? I am saying it is a tricky balance. We are flying the plane as we build it and we are doing the best we can to provide structure and stability while continuing to give our students the chance to learn. While I don’t believe one approach is more correct than another, what has worked for me are playlists. I have created playlists each week that incorporate fun check-ins that allow me to connect with my kids on a personal level and then a task for the day that covers the content they need. I’ve used Flipgrids for my check-ins each day and then an assortment of different websites and apps to keep our lessons fun and interesting every day. I do not post my entire playlist on Monday. I post the template on Google classroom on Monday, with Monday’s assignment, and then add to the live document each day of the week. That way, students are only introduced to one new activity a day. This still overwhelms a small percentage of my students, so I set the playlist due date for Sunday night of the next week at 8 p.m....instead of Friday afternoon, giving my students who need to move a little slower, or focus on other contents first, the time and flexibility to do so. I also make myself available on Google meet for help at least three times a week.

Typically, I have begun each week with a new concept. For example, last week we began our introduction to our unit on transformations—starting with translations. On Monday, my students were asked to complete a Flipgrid check-in and then watch an Edpuzzle I created from a Screencastify of me taking notes. I gave the students the video and the copy of the notes in case they wanted to create their own version but found that Edpuzzle forces them to actually watch the notes and answer the questions...which many students need to stay focused. On Tuesday, my students were asked to complete a daily check-in and an IXL assignment. Wednesday was another silly question check-in, and a wizer.me assignment. Thursday they completed a check in and a quizizz review, and on Friday, they had a check-in, of course, and a quiz on Edulastic.

Is it perfect? Absolutely not. I probably send 500 emails a week right now, and I have a headache every day by 4 p.m. from staring into my computer screen. But I am doing my best—we all are—and that is all anyone can ask.

Giving choices

Sally Boerschig teaches 2nd grade at Evergreen Community Charter School, an EL Education network school in Asheville, N.C.:

Before COVID-19, this is what my 2nd grade math class at Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, N.C., looked like: Students used manipulatives to move from concrete examples to abstract generalizations and equations. They played games and discussed their strategies with their tablemates. Activities were differentiated. I circulated among the tables, continually assessing their work to gauge each student’s understanding. The other teachers on my team and I often formed ad hoc, flexible groups to support those students who needed it with extra skills practice. My classroom hummed with collaboration, grappling, and determined engagement in the “business” of learning.

Enter the Coronavirus, stay-at-home orders, and virtual school.

Now my students, all learning at home, do not have access to the high-quality, high-priced math manipulatives that accompany the curriculum. Most cannot independently read the instructions, gather the materials needed, or complete the assignments on their own. I no longer get daily or even weekly feedback. They turn in assignments, but I don’t know how much their families helped them to complete it.

I know there are great disparities among my students in parental support, materials on hand, time spent each day on school, and access to technology (the school has enabled all to have online access with a computer, but many don’t have printers). To address those disparities, I hold virtual office hours so students can receive one-on-one help, get extra practice with a teacher, or simply chat.

In one such session, a student described her experience learning math at home this way: “It’s like that game we played earlier in the year when we weren’t allowed to ask questions. And we kept failing at making our buildings match.” She was referring to a game where two students have the same number, shape, and color of building blocks but can’t see what each other is doing. Student A builds a structure and describes the structure to student B, while student B tries to replicate it. The first go-round, student B can only listen and not ask questions. With these parameters for communication, their buildings looked nothing alike.

With “school at home,” I am trying to replicate the second go-round of that game where students are allowed to ask questions in order to improve their chances of replicating the building. My instruction, based on collaborative virtual planning with a team of teachers including assistants, special educators, and the academically gifted teacher, now prioritizes flexibility and choice.

So that students and working parents can have flexibility, we send out assignments for the week, not the day. One family with a working single parent does almost all of the school work on the weekend. Another family follows our suggested daily schedule exactly. When needed, we provide links for students to create their own manipulatives (i.e., building a meter stick) or give instructions to create items at home (i.e., dice with multiples of 5). When we asked them to build structures in order to practice counting in equal groups, we gave them suggestions of household items to use, such as Legos, building blocks, or even canned goods.

We also give choices: Students can solve problems through worksheets, games, or online activities. One student refuses to do any worksheets but will readily play the games or do an activity with the parent. Another student only is able to do the worksheets. We embed short videos in the instructions so students see us doing the activity. We offer tiered options, so all students can find their challenge. Our academically gifted specialist has access to our weekly virtual assignment and can embed activities directly into that document.

I have one Zoom session daily, but only one of these per week is direct math instruction. Again, to be flexible, these are recorded and made available for any students who miss the Zoom. Again, to offer choices, I help students through their individual struggles—with math or with being lonely and bored—in the virtual office hours. Simply having a conversation with someone outside their household may be the thing they need most at that time.

With all that we are doing, do I know if my students are growing as mathematicians? No. What I do know is that in this moment of global crisis that demands all of us learn in new ways, unless we take a whole-child approach, and support them as needed with flexibility and choice, they have little chance to grow as mathematicians. I hope that by offering flexibility and choices, students are finding a way to practice math skills and some students are deepening their mathematical knowledge. Most importantly, however, I hope this moment is enabling me and my students together to build greater self-awareness, resilience, confidence, and courage, which are essential markers of student achievement no matter the circumstances of learning.

“A new look”

Avery Zachery is a 4th grade math teacher at Winston Elementary School in Winston, Ga.:

In the age of the coronavirus, education as a whole has taken on a new look. I have given math instruction a face-lift in order to accommodate learning during these unprecedented times. Math instruction prior to the shutdowns of schools was student-centered, which provided repeated exposure to content and opportunities to explore mathematics in a variety of ways, which included the use of manipulatives, digital components, performance task, and partner or group work.

During the age of the coronavirus, I have had to completely change many aspects about my teaching. First, I needed to continue to provide quality instruction through digital means. I conduct math lessons on Tuesdays. My students have a designated time (12:20) every day to log into Google Meet for the lesson. Every lesson starts off with a roll call. My students received digital learning norms prior to teaching digitally. So every student is called on to unmute their microphone to say hello. I use the roll call as a means to take attendance. After the roll call, I review topics taught last week to bridge the concepts that students are about to learn.

I always start the lesson with an activator such as a video, game or use of math manipulatives. During this time, I continued this practice to introduce content by using the present features within Google Meet, which allows students to see my screen. Then the lesson progresses through modeling the content using Activ Inspire software with the Activ Slate. I use these items to be able to teach as I would in a classroom setting. They allow me to manipulate the content presented and annotate over documents, slides, and flip charts. Being able to work out problems for students to see has really revolutionized how I thought digital learning would be. Instead, I am able to keep digital learning very close to traditional learning in a classroom.

In order to keep the lesson engaging, to see who is participating, and administer formative assessments, I have students use the chat features within Google Meet frequently. Allowing students to chat helps to foster an environment conducive to learning but also one that encourages students to communicate about math. Throughout the lesson, students use the raise-hand feature to ask questions or make statements. My co-teacher mans the chat thoroughly. At the conclusion of the lesson, I explain each assignment which is compatible with Google Classroom (Google Slides, Google Forms, BOOM Cards). After completing the lesson whole group, I devote time to my students for further questions and guided groups in Google Meet.

Some students are encouraged to stay in the Google Meet for more time in which we complete guided math activities. My co-teacher and I help our students understand the assignments and give more individual time to meet their needs, which usually does not occur within a whole-group setting. This guided time allows us to pinpoint which parts of the lesson the students are struggling with and which parts they have full understanding. Many of our students like to stay in the Google Meet and receive more individualized instruction. It helps them to feel more confident about learning, especially learning digitally at home without our present support. After guided groups occur, all students work to complete the assignments. During this time, I am available to field questions within the Google Classroom Stream. Students send their questions, and I respond within a timely fashion to assist them in working out problems. If students need to meet one on one, I send that student a request to meet in Google Meet to give assistance. My students have fully used me as a resource during this time of digital learning.

Teaching math digitally has definitely changed in many ways; however, my heart for reaching my students and making learning mathematical concepts fun and engaging has not. Teaching digitally has its own set of challenges, but for the most part, it has afforded me the opportunity to continue to teach quality lessons to my students from afar.

Synchronous sessions

Bonnie Tripp has been an upper school mathematics educator and department chair at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Fla., for 35 years:

Asynchronous, Synchronous, Canvas, Explain EDU, Texas Instruments Teacher Software, Zoom, YouTube, upload, download, save as Pdf, and on and on! Math instruction in the age of coronavirus is interesting to say the least! I don’t think I have ever worked harder in my life. However, I might need to work smarter. Still working on that one.

However, I am lucky to work at a school that helps prepare us to undertake this task. They give us a tremendous amount of support to help navigate this online experience to help us help our students. The math department meets weekly to help and support one another. But, getting back to the question. I have synchronous sessions with each of my classes every week. The main objective here is to check in and make eye contact with each student much like I would have done before the coronavirus changed our lives. It is much like a well-being check. If a student doesn’t show up at these sessions, they are emailed, and if necessary, the parent is contacted. I am also planning on asking content-type questions and have them write down and hold up their answer. This will let me know if I need to set up a one-on-one video conference with that student.

Also, I have synchronous office hours three times a week. These are optional sessions that the students can come and ask questions to me directly, instead of in an email. Originally, all of this was overwhelming for both me and my students. We have somewhat of a routine now. To actually teach the content, I make videos of me teaching each section, just as I would have during class. The students are supposed to take notes as they watch the video, much as they would of in our other life. They complete their homework and then can post discussion questions on the problems they had. I then make another video explaining those specific problems. Before assessments, they upload their homework.

Authentic assessments can be tricky. I am still learning what works best. I have had them write their own test with answers to each. But the most important part of this is that they must supply a step-by-step process they used to get that answer. I have also made online tests that are immediately scored. Here I have learned from others that the last question on the test should be for the student to upload all their work for each problem in order to receive credit. This might help with knowing that it is their own work. For future assessments, I am also planning on having them make videos explaining the step-by-step process needed to solve that problem. I think this would be very useful when verifying trigonometric identities. So, math instruction in the age of the coronavirus is in a constant state of flux, but teaching and more importantly, learning, are still going on. But I really miss my students!

Thanks to Sally, Bonnie, Avery, and Katie for their contributions!

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