Introducing…Middle School Matters: Math!

February 8, 2018

When my eighth grader asks for help with his algebra homework, I smile inside. I love doing algebra! I love doing math, grappling with a problem and sticking with it. That wasn’t always the case.  Growing up, even though I was fairly good at math, it wasn’t fun. It was an individual experience, never collaborative. If I asked the teacher for help, I wasn’t “smart” enough. If I asked a classmate for their strategy in solving a problem, I was cheating. On the contrary, in my home, we have an entire wall painted with whiteboard, and Dylan and I can each work on a math problem and step back to compare our thinking. As an adult, I so enjoy this. Now, I love making mistakes – screwing up a problem royally only for Dylan and I to examine my logic (or lack thereof) and discover where my thinking went awry. He, too, gets the same feedback. I’m inspired to stay with a problem whatever it takes. In this way Dylan watches me be “math resilient” and together we grow that muscle.

I’m delighted to report, I’ve learned math resilience and a growth mindset (failing fast and forward and sticking with it) from Prospect Sierra math teachers. Our math faculty is passionate about math instruction and learning. I’ve observed our math teachers as a parent and principal, and I’ve caught the “math fever” from them! To stay on top of best practices, our Avis math department and Division Heads have been attending conferences, workshops, and regional math meetings, as well as tapping renowned math thinkers to design the best K-8 math program in our region. Just like Tapscott reviewed various elementary programs and chose the Bridges curriculum to suit our K-5 learners, Avis, too, has been actively researching and piloting dynamic math curricula. Our goal? To graduate students who are able and resilient math problem-solvers, who are eager and ready to tackle any problem presented to them…with persistence!

Math education in the U.S. has gone through many transitions over the last half century – from the post-Sputnik era and “new math,” and the “back to basics” movement in the 70s, to the “math wars” of the 80’s and 90’s, followed by the assessment-driven accountability movement of the aughts typified by the infamous (and famously unsuccessful) U.S. policy of No Child Left Behind. These recurring national shifts in math education primarily affect public schools, and during these decades of debate over what math education should look like in the U.S., independent schools, such as our own, have enjoyed the freedom to choose the pedagogy and curriculum that suits their students, mission, and school community. Nonetheless, these phases of math pedagogy are noteworthy and relevant to us because they help us see the historical trends and inform our perspective on what we think math education should look like.

With the creation of the Common Core standards in 2010, math educators finally found themselves with a set of deeply researched, thoughtful, cohesive, and well-written standards. These standards include what content and skills should be taught, and embedded within them are also a consistent emphasis on developing students’ deep conceptual understanding of mathematics. The Common Core standards are a successful blend of procedural skills, problem solving, and deep mathematical understanding, and the philosophical underpinnings of  the Common Core math standards are consistent with what our math teachers at Prospect Sierra have been doing for many years.

Currently Prospect Sierra is aligned with the Common Core math standards in K through 7th grade. It took a few years for high-quality, Common Core-aligned curricula to become available, and as mentioned earlier, in 2015, we adopted the Bridges in Mathematics curriculum for our K-5th grade programs. Our middle school math department is currently conducting a curriculum review for 6th-8th grade, and last year piloted Eureka Math in 6th and 7th grades. This year we are piloting a new curriculum in 6th through 8th grades, Illustrative Math, which offers a balance of deep conceptual understanding with skills-based practice. So far, we are very pleased, and there will be more information to come on how our math pilot program is fairing.

Our math team (all of our math teachers plus Abby and Heather) recently attended the California Mathematics Council (CMC) Conference, where we learned from great math leaders including Jo Boaler who spoke about math best practices and in particular, building math resilience. We also met with Phil Daro, a local math leader and one of the writers of the Common Core. The conversation was incredibly informative and helpful, and we will be carefully considering our options as we continue to seek out the best practices for math instruction and course sequences in the years to come. Stay tuned for more!

Last week Dylan and I were stumped by an algebra problem. What did I do? I came to school and threw it up on the whiteboard in my office. I’d pull in teachers from all disciplines as they passed by office, prompting them to take a stab at the problem and show their thinking. By the end of the day, I had multiple ways to solve the problem (and not without a lot of head scratching mind you). Through multiple methods, I learned more about engaged problem-solving. It was an inspired, fulfilling math experience, and I grew my math resilience muscle. I’m watching your kids’ math resilience muscles grow too!

Here’s to math, enjoying it, and problem-solving for a better world!

Heather Rogers, Middle School Head
Aaron Moorhead, 5th Grade Math & Science Teacher