Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Experiences in Elementary Math Lab add up for participants

Tags: ball, teacher education, teacher effectiveness, teachingworks

Experiences in Elementary Math Lab add up for participants In a way, it was a school for school.

From July 28 to August 8, the TeachingWorks 2014 Elementary Mathematics Laboratory (EML) provided an education not only for a group of soon-to-be fifth-graders from Ypsilanti Community Schools, but also for SOE students, practicing teachers, SOE faculty, and district and school administrators.

For more than a decade, EML has provided many different – and valuable – opportunities for participants in the laboratories. One of these opportunities is to provide “a mechanism for inquiry” aimed at improving knowledge about teaching, and improving student outcomes. To that end, practicing teachers observed and analyzed mathematics classroom instruction by a veteran educator – in this case, SOE Dean Deborah Loewenberg Ball. At the same time, school administrators saw firsthand what happens in the classroom, education researchers assessed instructional practices, and SOE students observed high-leverage teaching practices.

Another important opportunity is for elementary students in the program to work on challenging content critical for their success in school, ranging from key mathematical concepts, to key learning practices for mathematics and other content areas.

All this is made possible by the design of the laboratory program. Each day in the two-week laboratory began with a pre-briefing, where Ball collaborated with participants to refine the lesson plan and activities for the day with a focus on overall goals for the session as well as specific activities. For example, one of the first activities on the first day was to introduce the notebooks students would use throughout the program to document their work. Participants worked with Ball to consider the instruction necessary to set students up for successful use of mathematical records and to refine the lesson plan to reflect this work. By day nine, one of the many activities was to consider how to work with students to practice adding positive and negative integers.

Following the pre-briefing, laboratory participants watched as Ball taught the class, from 9:45 a.m. to noon. Katie Huang, a fourth-grade teacher from Saline Area Schools who helped organize tutoring sessions during the EML, noted, “Watching Deborah Ball, I learned something every single day – how she phrases what she’s doing, and why she’s doing it.”

Once students left the classroom for lunch, participants could examine the students’ notebooks to get a closer view of each student’s progress. Then, in a lesson debrief, Ball reflected on the day’s instruction and the group followed up with observations and discussion. “Questioning is one of the most important practices we engage in,” Ball explained. This work of analyzing instruction for the purpose of improving it is one of TeachingWorks’ high-leverage practices, essential to the work of teaching.

In the afternoon, the elementary students went on to outside activities, including an art program at the University Museum of Modern Art and one-on-one math tutoring, while lab participants could attend breakout sessions including “Teaching the Mathematical Practices” and “Examining the High-Leverage Teaching Practices.”

Sarah Stecher, a math major in U-M’s School of Literature, Science, and the Arts who worked as a tutor, said, “I’ve gotten valuable insight into teaching; how math work is done as a group, and how it’s important for students to understand math concepts – not just know the right answer.” Stecher is considering joining a future SOE cohort.

EML organizers from TeachingWorks, in collaboration with the Teaching and Learning Exploratory, taped each session and briefing, for later collaborative study and professional development. They said that the on-site observation sessions, plus the ability to review the sessions electronically later on, are critical hallmarks of the program: “The opportunity for diverse professionals and for researchers with diverse perspectives and kinds of expertise to observe and study a common instance of instruction is one of the most distinctive and powerful features of laboratory classes.”

All in all, EML provided a learning experience for everyone involved, with an emphasis on the collaborative study of instruction. “I thought it was fascinating,” said Emily Finkelstein, a senior in SOE’s Elementary Teacher Education program. “It’s a great environment for someone learning to be a teacher, to observe.”

For more about TeachingWorks, visit the website.

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