Discussion between Colleagues

What is your philosophy of teaching mathematics?

Learning math happens best when the students and teachers are working as a community. The focus of the students in the math class should not be just on the teacher, but on each other as colearners. Constructing mathematics knowledge is a social event. Each student’s voice is important; each has something to contribute.

So how do you go about creating a community in your classroom?

It takes a lot of patience and time up front. One of the first things I do at the beginning of the school year is to have discussions with the class. We establish the procedures, the atmosphere that allows each student to do his/her best work. We post the results of the discussions. It is my job as the teacher to hold the class to carry out what we have agreed on. Sometimes I use a contract approach that we revisit throughout the year. The contract spells out what each student contributes and what the students expect from each other. There is another important point: I do not send anyone away from the class—ever!

YA have a support team that deals with disruptive students, but I do not have to use the team. I create a place where students want to be and not leave.

How do your students handle the community approach?

Students are very conscious of the community. The students monitor each other’s responses to the priorities of the class. They are aware that everybody brings something to the table. There is no feeling that there are two camps in the room—those who can and those who can’t. Both boys and girls get equal chances, too. So, if you are calling only on boys one day, the students will let you know!

How do you get the students to work together to form a team?

Early in the school year we have a discussion about the roles and responsibilities of working as a team. We establish five roles: facilitator, timekeeper, materials manager, recorder, and reporter. We cycle the roles so that each student gets a chance to do each one. There is some flexibility in carrying out the roles. For example, the team gets a chance to decide how to record the data, how to report their findings, and so forth. And there is individual work, too. After working on some task individually, a student brings it back to the team.

Your school’s philosophy maintains that the school has a culturally relevant curriculum. What is it that you do that makes the Algebra Project culturally relevant?

Even though I use the connected math curriculum [CMP curriculum], it is the Algebra Project curriculum process that makes the curriculum culturally relevant for children; it is children’s culture versus some curriculum developer’s culture. There are instances in the CMP curriculum when some of the contexts are not relevant to the children here, so we have to substitute a context that is more relevant to our students. For example, one of the things students do in the “Data about Us” CMP unit is to figure out different kinds of averages. Instead of using the data given in the book, they generate their own data. They collect their own data about how long it takes different people in the classroom to get to school, how far away from school they live, how that might affect the time that people arrive at school, and so forth. It is their data rather than the book’s data. Sometimes we compare that data with the data in their books, but it is really that Algebra Project push that says, “Find the experience that students have, so that they all have a place to enter in.” The students all bring something to the table, whether it is an experience they had before or one that they are creating new. While generating their data and constructing their understanding, they have a place to write things down and revise. They refine their ideas and make changes as their understandings clarify. I urge them not to erase. I usually say, “Write your new thinking.” The student’s voice is so important. And once students hear themselves voicing their ideas in the class, they are never the same afterwards.

Why focus on Asian culture to teach African Americans?

Do you know where that focus came from? When Bob [Moses] first designed the curriculum in the late 1980s, we were teaching at the King Open Program in Cambridge and he wanted a link to the social studies unit on China that his students were learning. But, you know, it is a common experience for students to go to Chinese restaurants. The Chinatown of our city is culturally connected to other parts of the city. Occasionally, you have to adjust the zodiac-focus because of religious reasons, but then you just use another cycle to help develop the concepts.

Would you teach the lesson differently if you had a different group of students? Let’s say they were all Euro- Americans, all white kids. Would it be different?

While it is a lesson that I have done in a predominantly white class, in Algebra Project network, the Winding Game has been implemented with predominantly African American, Latino, and Asian American classrooms as well. What counts the most are the experiences the kids are bringing to the table. I may use different strategies with different classes: for example, more individual work versus more work in teams. It really varies from class to class. In general, the targeted populations of Algebra Project are those students who have historically been left out of the college preparatory math sequence (children of color, girls, etc.). That was Bob Moses’s deliberate intention—to put a floor under the students he worked with. The curriculum empowers those students whose voices are not heard in the math class to be mathematically powerful people. In any classroom there are some whose voices are not heard. This may be especially true of middle school girls for whom the curriculum makes a big difference. It is very powerful!

How do you assess the students’ learning?

In the Algebra Project curriculum there are no formal tests. In-class work and homework are a big part of the formative assessment in the Algebra Project. Getting the students to do homework is not an issue. Each student’s attitude is, “I’m responsible; I can’t let my team down.” At the beginning of the year the students and I develop a 0- to 4-point rubric for assessing their work. I find that having a rubric helps students know how to interpret a score of “3” so much better than just guessing. In the CMP program there are end-of-the-unit projects, quizzes, and unit tests.

You also have a state-mandated test, right?

Yes. I do not stop the regular lessons to teach to the test. I know it is a real struggle for teachers not to use class time to prepare for just one test. What I have found from using the Algebra Project curriculum is that it establishes for kids that math is a human endeavor. They can do math! Their efficacy as mathematicians is tremendous, so when they approach new things or meet a question they are not sure about on the test, they have not lost confidence and work to figure it out.

Do you think that being of the same race as most of the students somehow empowers you to make some connection that may not have happened if you had a class of white students?

Yes, and no. Here my being an African American woman does give me certain leverage over maybe another teacher who is not an African American.

Do you think that leverage is that they respect you because “she’s knows what she’s talking about; she has a sense of us as students; she knows where we are coming from”?

Not necessarily. I do not send my students out of my classes. I also have taught in a mostly white school and did not send students out of my class to the principal there, either. It really depends on your expectations of yourself as a teacher. It’s interesting. When I first came here, I was told by a staff member: “You are not from here; you will not know how to teach our students.”

So how did you react to this comment? And what did you do?

I was angry at the comment and said to myself, “We’ll see.” I just did what I came to do. I believe in what the Algebra Project represents and who it is for. And I knew what was behind the comment. Principals like to hire from the community because those outside do not know the struggles. So I kept coming back every day.

What recommendation would you make to a teacher who is about to begin teaching in your school?

I would highly recommend that they sit in on many classes here.

Why is that? Do you think they will find things that are different from many other classes? Let’s say they were teachers who had been teaching already. What would they see here that is so different that you think they really need to see it in order to succeed?

I think they would see how much the teacher needs to establish a community in the classroom. I think they would get a better sense of what it is that children bring with them to school and how different teachers throughout the school tap into the little strengths and work from that place. I think people often come here who really want to teach at Young Achievers, and they have this ideal picture in their heads of what they are going to teach in an urban school and how they will make a huge difference. Then, when people actually come, it is a shock, and they feel completely thrown out of the water. It is hard for some teachers to hold on to their beliefs and ideals of what kids can do. They question whether students can master algebra by the end of the eighth grade, for example. Teachers have to figure out what makes the students tick; they have to figure out what makes themselves tick. Teachers have to look at themselves and their own practices; this is not easy for some people. During their first year here, they will know if they will make it here. But once they figure out how it all works, they will be successful—and very rewarded.

What supports do your school have to help teachers be successful?

YA respects the need of teachers for time: time to interact with each other, to problem-solve around the kids, and to work with curriculum. Teachers have two to three hours per week for team meetings; they have grade-level meetings twice a week; and, on Fridays, the students are dismissed at noon so the upper school and lower school staff can meet all afternoon. There are lots of support people here, too. And we seek a lot of parental involvement. For example, before beginning a new unit of instruction, teachers send a letter home informing the parents and giving them suggestions for helping their children.

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