Math Differentiation Brings New Collaboration
The Rashi School recently designated a math specialist to mobilize teachers’ collaboration around meeting students’ diverse learning needs in mathematics. This specialist works in partnership with teachers to interpret and apply real-time data, assess student mastery, and identify opportunities for student development. Central to this collaboration between educators is ongoing reflection, information sharing, and goal-oriented adaptation of teaching approach based on documentation of each student’s learning.
The Rashi School’s lower school classroom structure provides a learning space for 16-20 students per class section with a teaching team of two: one lead teacher and an assistant teacher. Each grade has two classes and, traditionally, each class’s learning and instruction has largely been self-contained, although teachers meet weekly to collaborate on their instruction. As part of an initiative led by the school’s director of curriculum and instruction and managed by the school’s two lower school learning specialists, Rashi’s lower school teachers focused on redesigning math instruction in order to differentiate teaching and learning to appropriately challenge each student. This initiative combined both classes so teachers could group like-learners and deliver instruction to meet a variety of learning needs.
During the 2016-2017 school year, teachers in grades 2-5 partnered with a dedicated math specialist to collaborate on finding ways to meet students’ diverse learning needs. For one hour per week, teachers devoted their planning time to this collaboration.
Each grade-level team met with the math learning specialist for an hour each week to assess their students’ comprehension of concepts, to plan the upcoming week’s lessons, and to consider methods for differentiating instruction for their class. Also available to our teachers was Paul Goldenberg, the author of ThinkMath, the math curriculum used at The Rashi School.
At the beginning of a unit, teachers pre-assessed their class to gain data points that helped them understand individual readiness to tackle each concept. Then, regardless of their homeroom, the teaching team organized the entire grade into smaller groups according to the students’ readiness to receive new concepts, rather than requiring each teacher to focus on differentiating lessons for each type of learner in their class.
Based on research on attention spans in children (Teaching in the Fast Lane by Suzy Pepper Rollins), teachers separated lessons and supporting activities with movement breaks to solidify concepts and allow students to refresh their ability to focus on the lesson at hand. After a short frontal lesson in their homeroom, students would break into smaller groups to continue their math work with a lead teacher, an assistant teacher or the math learning specialist.
The following factors enabled the program to succeed:
- A clear understanding of expectations for each lesson
- Retaining students’ attention, motivation, and retention during lessons thanks to the movement breaks
- More individualized attention for students
- The ability for teachers to plan and teach together, providing more dedicated time to think about and plan math instruction
- A spirit of collaboration between grade-level teams that spanned all curricular areas
These are areas of continued focus:
- Collaborating between teachers to gain a deeper understanding of the needs of students who are not in their homerooms
- Exploring ways to find follow-up time with students who are in a different class
- Helping students better understand the concept of moving fluidly through different ability and understanding groupings throughout the year
- Finding balance between math and other curricular areas in their planning time
Data collected throughout the school year demonstrated that students were more likely to master concepts when they were empowered to explain to each other when and how they came to understand a new concept. The process led to teachers making more informed choices about when to employ whole-class, small-group and partner work in a variety of applications.
As a result of the work led by the math specialist, students received instruction from all of the teachers and interacted with students from the entire grade. Consequently, the students experienced different teaching styles and were able to work with and learn from peers from a greater pool. The math specialist directly supported students and their learning while also supporting teacher growth by helping build their capacity to meet the diverse needs of their students.