Schenectady City School District teachers went back to school last week, practicing math and literacy at an annual teacher training institute at Schenectady County Community College.
The training institute gets teachers working through sample experiments and brainstorming ways to improve their classrooms. While literacy skills have long been a focus of the training, math skills were folded folded into the training for the first time this year.
“What if we are working with kids and they don’t figure that out? How do we guide them there without giving them the answer?” said Sara Warner, fourth-grade teacher at Paige Elementary School, as a group of teachers worked through an experiment on the relationship between diameter and circumference.
During the experiment, a pattern emerged: In all cases, no matter what size circle, the ratio between the diameter and circumference was almost three. The longer a student worked through the exercise of taking down dimensions and calculating their ratios, the more and more the pattern would emerge.
“You don’t want to beat them over the head,” said Lisa Singer, a consultant with Math Solutions who led a seminar at the training. Instead, she said, use the students in the room that do understand the subject to help their classmates. “Utilize the kids that do get it.”
About 180 teachers, mostly pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade, spent the week at SCCC, taking a pair of five-day seminars on math and literacy. On Thursday, the teachers fanned out across the district to practice what they had learned with students participating in the district’s summer enrichment program.
The weeklong training – called the Summer Teaching and Learning Institute – is in its third year. But the name changed after two years with an exclusive focus on literacy, adding math sessions this year for the first time.
The district in recent years developed a districtwide literacy plan focused on early grades. The effort bolstered classroom libraries and sought ways to engage more student interest in reading. Literacy is so critical in the early grades, district officials have said, that if students aren’t effective readers, they won’t even know what they are being asked to do on math problems.
But the district has started to turn more attention to similarly bolstering the math program, as results on math assessments lags performance on the English Language Arts tests.
While the district’s ELA proficiency on annual state tests improved slightly -- from 18 percent to 19 percent – half of the students still registered the lowest score on the annual tests: Math proficiency dropped from 14 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2017.
“We know math and learning are both not performing,” Tonda Dunbar, district director of curriculum and instruction, said of the district’s test scores.
Internal proficiency measures presented to the school board in May showed mixed results among the district's elementary schools. Howe, Woodlawn and Zoller elementary schools all made proficiency gains from October to March – from what were the highest starting scores in the district. Meanwhile, Hamilton, Lincoln, Paige and Yates elementary schools all registered higher proficiency scores in the fall than in the spring.
During the May presentation to the school board, district officials tasked with overseeing math education said a priority should be placed on improvements in students’ math reasoning and their ability to talk about math. District math coordinator Kurt Redman left the district in Schenectady and will be replaced by a new coordinator this month.
As the district moves into the new school year, teachers spent time over the summer developing new math curriculum units for six grade levels, including Algebra and business math at the high school. Dunbar said the district was looking to shift math teaching to better fit “the way our kids learn it,” increasing hands-on activities and student discussion.
Teachers will look to incorporate math vocabulary into earlier grades and encourage students to discuss and explain the processes they use to arrive at answers to math problems.
“Students have to be social learners. They have to engage. They have to struggle with it and make mistakes and construct their own learning,” Dunbar said. “It’s about creating an environment for students to feel safe and to take those risks.”
During the weeklong training institute, teachers participated in a pair of seminars – one on math and one on literacy – that stretched through the morning and into early afternoon each day.
The math sessions were led by instructors from Math Solutions, a private company the district hired to conduct a math-focused needs analysis and the teacher training. The cost of using the four Math Solutions instructors and their program at the training was $71,000, district spokeswoman Karen Corona said. Superintendent Larry Spring said he is negotiating with the company about whether it will continue to provide services to the district.
During the sessions, the teachers focused on how to encourage students to work through the “productive struggle” of trying and trying until they understand new concepts. The struggle makes the learning that much stronger.
“You are going to get to this really true understanding when they get it,” Singer told the Schenectady teachers during a training session.
Unlike their counterparts in the older grades, elementary school teachers have to teach their students all of the subjects, playing the role of both math and reading specialists.
“I like the little moments when something really clicks for a student,” said Paige third-grade teacher Stacia Toher.