Discussion between Colleagues
What is your philosophy of teaching mathematics?
Students should be given opportunities to learn important concepts with different learning tools such as technology, the text, and manipulatives. As much as possible, applications that are meaningful
to the students should be incorporated in the lessons. I try to present material in various ways so that students have a better chance for understanding.
Are there any teaching practices that you consistently apply based on the culture of your students?
My students love to work in groups, so my classroom is set up for group work. They also respond well to visuals, hands-on, and repetition of terms.
What would you do differently if you taught this lesson to students of a different culture?
Because information about diabetes is important to any culture, I would not change much. However, if there were a problem or disease known to affect this different culture, then I would do some research to make that the focus of the lesson to learn the mathematics.
How does your being from a similar culture enhance your teaching of the students?
Being able to use my students’ first language to clarify the language of the mathematics or their misconceptions is, of course, a huge factor in my students’ understanding of the content. In addition, although my Latin background is Mexican and my students are from different countries, sharing a common language does help to create a bond between us a lot faster. While learning the content, we use Spanish cultural references to gain a deeper understanding of who we are and how we differ, and I always try to stress that what we have in common is greater than our differences.
Please describe the ESOL math program in your school.
Students in the ESOL program are required to meet the same curriculum standards as any other student in mathematics. Every teacher in Florida must be ESOL certified, which means that they have received professional development on how to integrate ESOL strategies and supplementary materials into the curriculum to ensure that comprehensible instruction is being provided to every ELL student. An ELL student is placed in an ESOL class because he/she just entered the U.S. and speaks Spanish at home. In February they are given an English proficiency assessment and labeled as an ESOL with numbers 1 through 5 where increasing numbers signify higher English Skills. A child exits the program at level 5. My class consists of ESOL 1 and 2 students, and even at the beginning of the year, they are required to speak and to do their homework in English as much as possible. You are observing us near the end of February, and by this time, most are proficient enough to converse, ask questions, write a paragraph in English, and pass the test at a higher ESOL level. I have had children with enough English proficiency to skip two levels. I am finding that, in general, parents are very eager to get their kids out of an ESOL class because they are fearful of their child being perceived as having some kind of deficiency. I explain to parents that, in addition to supporting their content understanding, the program benefits their child by allowing more processing time on any assessment given in class or by the state.
I notice that you do not correct student’s spelling. In general, how do you balance your use of English and Spanish when teaching?
It varies with the English proficiency levels of students in my class. I gauge their understanding frequently through questioning and then translate in Spanish whenever they need clarification to deepen their understanding of English or of the content. During the math period, I am careful not to interrupt their thought process by correcting their English.
How do you generally assess students?
I give my students multiple chances for success. What is most important to me is that they have learned and can apply the important concepts now—today I do not hold past, poor test grades against them. Once they grasp the concept, my next focus is on helping them to retain it by connecting it to new work as we move forward. I typically give two assessments a week: one is in a group setting; the other is an individual paper-and-pencil test. They need to be able to succeed on both types of assessments.
Do your students enjoy doing math?
Students enter my class with a strong foundation in basic skills from their countries. They come already knowing their multiplication tables, unlike many other students in our school. They have a love for mathematics, and I love working with them to sustain it. I also learn from them, too. I was born and educated in America, so I do not compute in the same manner they do. Consider the way they perform subtraction with regrouping. You know what amazes me when they do it? They do not borrow systematically as we do. They do not need to regroup—they just write their answers down, and the answers are always correct. I had one student explain it to me, and I learned that she uses addition to count up all the time instead of subtracting. Rather than borrow, she adds ten to columns in the minuend to count up when necessary, and then compensates by adding ten to the subtrahend of the column on the left. She gets her answer much faster than I do with borrowing! It was interesting to then share with her, and the rest of the class, my algorithm so that we now have two different ways for doing the problem. NCTM’s recommendation on using multiple ways for strategies happens quite naturally in my class!
Given that you are in a low-performing school, what special programs are in place to help all your students succeed?
A priority is in building self-esteem so that students feel they can succeed. As for the academics, we have a before- and after-school tutorial for reinforcements, and that includes working with the computer. Extracurricular activities are also important. We also have tutors come in from community organizations to work one-on-one with those children who show potential to pass the state test with a little more help. We are also proud of the music program. Music teachers spend a lot of time with students who can choose to play the flute, violin, or a small xylophone. Students show off their acting, musical, and artistic talents through participation in concerts, plays, and school decorations. We try to showcase their talents at a time when parents can attend. For example, during the Christmas season, the children decorate the building, put on a play, and have a chorus concert in the evenings. The children love these activities, and, of course, the parents enjoy them as well and feel proud of the students.
How do you feel about your state’s high-stakes test as a measure of your students’ competencies?
Our students are from low-income households, and many come to us below grade level. Thus, it is really not fair to measure them against others from more prosperous backgrounds. Of concern is that we are given weekly planning or pacing guide to follow, and it soon becomes unrealistic to have all students keeping its pace, but it is designed to get students prepared for the state test. Consider the ELL child who has been in the country for over two years and is still not literate in English. That child should not be required to pass the state test. The test is all in English, and we are not allowed to translate any portions for students. Furthermore, if at the end of the year, these same children fail an ESOL English test that measures their English proficiency, they are then required to be tested for learning disabilities (LD). Guess what? The LD test is also in English! Why is a child learning disabled because they don’t know a language? There is no test to accurately measure the ESOL student’s cognitive ability, thus, a lot of our students are incorrectly recommended for LD services. I do think teachers should be accountable for student achievement; however, the basis should start where the students are today, and then growth should be the measurement factor. We have to help measure growth through monthly tests that are required of all students.
What recommendations would you make to a teacher who is about to begin teaching in your school? Learning about the background of the students is a must for any class of students. Our students need structure, so the teacher would need good classroom management skills and class rules that are acceptable to the students. Next, the teacher needs to be willing to accept and help students who are not academically ready to perform what is required of them. Our average student comes to us below grade level, so the teacher would need a strong belief that all kids can learn in order to move our students from where they are to where they should be.