Teachers get hands-on instructing algebra to at risk middle school students

There was a time when Mike Moser's math classes at Park Middle School in Antioch would probably have looked a lot like every other in America.

Students sitting in straight rows; eyes up front. No talking to neighbors and, certainly, everyone does their own work. Moser, too, would have led the room in a conventional manner, with his back mostly to the kids, scribbling on the board while explaining the problem that some students would understand and other might not.

Things are different today.

The students huddle in groups of two's and three's, quietly comparing notes; struggling; challenging; collaborating.

Moser' role has also been recast. No longer standing static at the front of the room, he roams about. Engaging some, pushing others; providing hints with a nod or a shrug. The burden is clearly on the kids.

There's unfamiliar stuff too. Construction paper, sometimes folded neatly into cubes that resemble pieces in a Tetris game; sometimes bent and taped to hold the shape of a fan or a wheelchair ramp.

The room, the kids and the teacher are all part of a grand experiment supported by a $5 million federal grant seeking new methods for teaching algebra to disadvantaged seventh and eighth graders.

The program, being led by ConnectEd and California Education Round Table, among other partners, will study the impact of early intervention and a carefully constructed, project-based curriculum on student achievement. The instruction is also aligned to promote an awareness and expectation for college.

The study is being played out in 23 schools and 17 districts, comprising nearly 60 teachers and more than 4,100 students in both the control and treatment groups.

If the experimental instruction represents a significant departure from the students' perspective, it is nothing short of a sea-change for teachers and one reason recruiting veteran educators to jump into the program wasn't easy.

This is definitely a little different - you are not telling them directly what to do, when to do and how to do," said Mosher in a recent interview. "You are relying on them more to uncover what is happening. One of the real changes is that I'm asking more questions and having them really think about what the lesson is about - instead of telling them."

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Editor's Note: This is one in a series of reports on an effort by California educators led by the Alliance for Regional Collaboration to Heighten Educational Success to improve at-risk eighth grade sucess in algebra. Prior stories can be found at the links below:

April 16, 2012: https://cabinetreport.com/articles/viewarticle.aspx?article=2301

December 5, 2011: https://cabinetreport.com/articles/viewarticle.aspx?article=2102

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Research suggests that students tend to retain knowledge better when communicated through project-based learning, and there's growing evidence that this method is particularly effective with lower-achieving students.

The architects of the study - which they've titled the STEM Learning Opportunities Providing Equity program or SLOPE for short - argued in winning the federal grant in 2009 that putting a project-based curriculum into middle schools was worth a shot. Certainly traditional instruction hasn't proved successful.

One of the first challenges, however, was getting teachers to take the jump, who have been conditioned for generations that the only way to teach math by standing at the front of the room running through a list of abstract equations.

"This is so different," said Daniela Imai, coordinator of educational services for Antioch Unified, noting that in her district only about a third of the teachers engaged in middle school math signed up for the program. Some of that was due to time restrictions, but much of it may also have been concern over dealing with such a new curriculum.

"There was some fear of the unknown," she said. "The teachers that did jump in, they were the ones that were prepared to take those risks, to put their work out there. It was kind of a self-selecting process. But interest is spreading, other teachers are inquiring."

At its essence, the SLOPE program requires participating teachers to utilize three drop-in' project units during the year as part of the regular Algebra I instruction. All three have been specifically created to bridge a crucial instructional step.

The first one, for instance, is a unit around single-variable linear equations articulated through the construction of puzzle cubes. Another focuses on graphing linear equations by charting the progress of multiple airplanes and directions to ensure a safe landing.

Finally, students solve quadratic equations by factoring and the quadratic formula by designing and playing a virtual catapult game.

Some students would have experienced a pre-algebra summer session that also used project learning - building models to learn about measurements and fractions; scale and proportional reasoning.

To get teachers ready, they too had to get instruction, which included a two-day retreat and ongoing support through a network of instructional coaches.'

The SLOPE program relies on a heavy dose of collaboration' among the teachers where trial and error and risk-taking are encouraged.

"At the core of it, we obviously want to increase student learning," said Kentaro Iwasaki, senior program associate at ConnectEd, who helped design the groundbreaking curriculum being used in the SLOPE study.

"But what we will have the most impact on is this group of teachers," he said. "For me, if we have the chance to impact 40 teachers or 80 teachers - or whatever the number is, and they get a taste of teaching differently - that will impact the rest of their years and that's thousands and thousands of students."

Program sponsors, who also include the Alliance for Regional Collaboration to Heighten Educational Success, based in Sacramento, and the California Academic Partnership Program - a collaborative of all of the state's educational sectors administered by the California State University system - are reluctant to draw many conclusions so far. Student engagement appears strong just through anecdotal observations; the kids report understanding the material better and enjoying the curriculum.

Because its federal grant comes out of the Investing in Innovation program, the conditions of the study have been maintained at a near clinical level where as many variables as possible have been accounted for and measured in. The objective is to have definitive results based on an instructional system that can be repeated elsewhere.

Reports are due to the U.S. Department of Education in the fall of 2015.

There is a sense, at least in the Antioch school district, that project learning as designed in the SLOPE study may have some ongoing benefits.

Michael DeFrancesco, vice principal at Park Middle School, said he recalled project learning being introduced in the 1990s with a former principal telling him and other teachers to come up with projects that could be used in the classroom.

"Some of us were really good at it, some of us were not," he said. "But even the most engaging efforts were not necessarily appropriate given the timing of the lessons and the state standards.

"What they (SLOPE) have done here is fantastic," he said. "Somebody went out and built the projects, they calibrated them to standards and have come up with the assessments. And then they handed it all to the teachers."

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