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2019-03-01 / Shorts

Finding Joy in Math

The State College Area School District has taken a new approach to teaching math in its elementary schools, and it’s already seeing results.
By Chris Rosenblum & Photos by Nabil K. Mark | State College Area School District


State College Area School District fourth-graders have discovered that math can be handy in another sense.

One February lesson involved measuring hand spans, making tables and identifying the maximum, minimum and range of data sets like a statistician. Ferguson Township Elementary School teacher Kelly Kaminski’s class plunged into the activity before examining one table.

“We want to look at this information and analyze patterns,” Kaminski told her students. “What do you notice from this data?”

Next came recording arm spans, then reviewing fractions by studying a table of butterfly wingspans.

So concluded part of the district’s new elementary math curriculum, Bridges in Mathematics. The units have added up to a successful start. For the first time, each elementary grade level exceeded their projected growth in math at the mid-year point. In fact, each grade’s growth is 10 percent higher, on average, than any year since the district began annually using Measures of Academic Progress assessment tests in 2011.

“We’re really pumped up,” Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Vern Bock says. “What that’s saying is, each grade level as a whole is making more than a year’s worth of growth at this point if they continue on that trajectory.”

That’s welcome news for a district that expanded its elementary day last year, providing more core subject learning time, and introduced a math curriculum chosen after two years of careful research and deliberation. Teachers have worked hard to learn and implement Bridges for a powerful impact: students thinking through problems in multiple ways, deepening their understanding of math concepts.

Director of Elementary Curriculum Deirdre Bauer led the committee that selected Bridges from the nonprofit Math Learning Center. The program’s strength, she says, lies in how it builds from grade to grade so that “teachers stand on the shoulders of the teachers before them.”

Moreover, Bauer says, the program provides a balanced approach. Students learn different strategies for problems as well as math facts for fluency.

“We want kids to find joy in math,” she says. “Math can be fun, and that’s what I really like about Bridges. There’s certainly direct instruction, but there’s lots of strategy work and there are games that really help solidify those skills.”

Bridges revolves around three components. Number Corner, a daily 20-minute session, introduces and reviews concepts, such as decimals for fourth-graders. Hourlong daily lessons blend guided and independent practice. And Work Place time regularly includes math games for honing skills.

A common thread, spiraling, particularly appeals to Kaminski. To reinforce material, lessons spiral back to previous units by layering new learning on previously learned concepts and skills. Analyzing the butterfly wingspan table, for example, revisited adding and subtracting fractions.
“Students have many different opportunities to experience the same concept throughout the year, so it’s not one and done,” Kaminski says.

Discussions are another signature feature. Students may be asked to talk among themselves about concepts or explain strategies.

“This is interactive math,” Bock says. “Gone are the days of a teacher standing up and teaching a procedure and expecting kids to memorize it. It’s really kids and teachers interacting with each other and talking about math.”

Given the promising results so far, Bock is excited about the future, especially as the district continues working with the Penn State-led Pennsylvania Math Initiative to enhance instruction. Kaminski also looks forward to the second year.

“I think once the students get used to the pace of the program,” she says, “we’ll see even more growth.” •SCM

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