Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: November 2017 | TELjournal.ca
Students who find themselves two or more grade levels below their peers require additional, intentional programming to be successful. This paper explores programs implemented at Argyle Secondary in North Vancouver, programs that attempt to build scaffolds and supports to allow students to catch up on and fill in the gaps of their learning.
The transition process for grade seven students as they move to high school often begins years before the last day of classes. Elementary teachers identify students in two main categories and this information is communicated to the high school team. There are students needing academic supports who are recommended for programs and students who will be successful independently. Students who require additional supports often need learning assistance blocks and adapted curriculum. However, the students who are two or more grade levels below their peers will require additional intentional programming to be successful. The question is, what supports do these students need to be successful in grade eight-math class that will lead to a walk across the stage with dignity, purpose and options in grade twelve (Halbert and Kaser, 2013)?
This paper will explore programs that have been implemented at Argyle Secondary, North Vancouver in an effort to build scaffolds and supports that will allow students to catch up on and fill in the gaps of their learning to complete required math courses and assessments for graduation. Starting in 2017/2018, grade twelve students will be required to receive a passing grade on a new numeracy exam to graduate. Students with low achievement in math may find this exam to be challenging—only time will tell once the exam is administered what the pass/fail rate is for this required exam (“Building Student Success”, 2017).
As a secondary math teacher and a Family of Schools Teacher Leader, I have the unique opportunity to explore the transition from grade seven to grade eight for all students, but especially for students who have been identified by their classroom teachers as performing at or below a grade five academic level. In my support role, I often work with these students prior to their move to Argyle Secondary assisting with identifying their weaknesses and building programs that allow the students to develop their mathematical thinking and improve their ability to solve mathematical problems and demonstrate their learning at grade level.
This year, I started to look at this problem through the process of inquiry, specifically using The Spiral of Inquiry process (Halbert and Kaser, 2013). The Spiral of Inquiry process provides the framework for this living reflective, reflexive practice and describes the stages of development through the scanning, hunch, focus, professional learning, action and checking processes. The structure of the Spiral of Inquiry works in part as a graphic organizer for educators to develop their concepts of process and change.
During the Networks of Inquiry and Innovation (NOII) 2017 Symposium, Amelia Peterson from Harvard University used the metaphor of fire to explain the process of complex problem solving using the elements of oxygen, heat and fuel. She asked, “What do your methods need to achieve? Do you know enough about the specific problems or lacks you have? Do you know enough about what assets and opportunities you have? What is your theory of change” (personal communication, May 13, 2017)? Peterson provided a framework of design theory with three key components. In this complex issue of math transitions, the oxygen represents those students who are low performers in academics, the heat represents the structures, programming and teacher education required to work with this group in grade eight and the fuel represents the resources required in terms of teachers, and educational resources required to make improvements. In this metaphor water may represent the challenge to teachers to extend curriculum across a wide spectrum of abilities in a very challenging teaching climate as new curriculum and new policies are placing high demands on their time. Peterson’s fire metaphor works well within the Spiral of Inquiry cycle to help develop probing questions about the process of solving complex educational issues such as how to integrate low math performers in main stream math classes.
Our math department had small math classes for students identified with low math ability. However, it was difficult for these students to transition into the regular math streams later on (Moore, 2017). In the past, Argyle had run a transitions math class for low achievement learners to be supported by one teacher and an educational assistant. Ironically, this group of low performing learners was considered a homogeneous math group. However, each student identified in this group had diverse learning needs with a variety of Ministry identifications including autism, learning disabilities, and behavioural challenges. This group lacked student role models to help them see what they needed to do as mainstream Math Eight students. There was no connection with the regular Math Eight classes and students didn’t know what they weren’t learning as they were taught an adapted curriculum (Moore, p. 28). Often these classes would become staid.
Janine Duprey and I visited the elementary schools to meet the students identified as ‘transition’ students, students who may struggle with Math Eight concepts, and worked with them to complete a thinking problem. We chose the Skyscraper Problem, a multi-step task where students have to create a grid of buildings following specific rules in a Sudoku like manner (http://www.peterliljedahl.com/teachers/good-problem).
Almost immediately, we could see many students’ social/emotional challenges. Several students showed high frustration levels at the start of the activity or after one or two false starts. Several students were unable to complete the task due to their inability to sequence steps. There were also pleasant surprises. One student completed the complex task methodically, like a chess player, correctly on the first try. Overall, while creating an opportunity to meet all the potential students we were able to find the students who were very challenged with their mathematical problem solving ability and to see promise in those students who showed interest, asked questions, and showed resiliency.
Through the process of scanning the incoming students, as well as meeting with their teachers and sharing our findings, we gained a greater perspective about the needs of the students of our incoming classes for September. Of the incoming group of grade eights, twenty students were identified as requiring additional support. We were concerned that these students would be at high risk of failing math courses without appropriate teaching strategies.
What could Argyle do to help these students be successful in grade eight and with the goal of crossing the stage in grade twelve with dignity, purpose and options (Halbert and Kaser, 2017)?
In the end, we focused our plan to accommodate the low achievement learners, while also providing opportunities for all learners to work together in a heterogeneous grouping. This would be a new model for our school and for math learners: Monster Math was born.
Our goal to create a classroom that provided opportunities for all students to thrive was in part inspired by the OECD’s (2017) Seven Principles of Learning. These principles help to develop an educational environment that puts the learner at the center, emphasizes the social nature of learning, understands that emotions are central to learning, and recognizes individual differences. These four principles formed the foundation of our program. In addition, we would persevere to stretch all learners, use assessment for learning, and build horizontal connections throughout our programming (pg. 16).
The framework of the class would have two teachers and two classes working in one large, connected space. The classes would have identified transition students who would work alongside non-identified students on the same material. Adapted curriculum would always be available for students to move up or down as their individual learning needs were to be met. Both teachers would take responsibility for teaching the groups, adapting the curriculum, creating formative assessment opportunities, and providing ongoing feedback to the students.
Developing a Hunch
With our focus in mind, we worked with our Principal Elizabeth Bell to integrate all students into a mainstream class while providing the appropriate adaptations and supports including smaller class sizes and extra Educational Assistants (EA’s) support. Initially we planned on having one blended class, but after looking at the data and the number of identified students we developed two blended classes of approximately fifty students. We also developed a similar program for the students who were in a grade eight-transition program the previous year. Our hunch was simple yet unique in its approach to integrating low performing students intentionally in a rich mathematical environment to allow some or all of the low performing students to successfully complete the regular Grade Eight curriculum.
In previous years, once a student entered into a transitions program they had no way out; they were destined to complete the lowest mathematical courses on offer in Grade Ten. Post-secondary options are limited if students are unable to complete the full math program; all students should graduate with dignity, purpose, and options and providing a pathway to complete high level mathematics courses is critical for students’ success (Halbert and Kaser, 2013). We will need to continue to follow these students over the years to determine how many transition students completed the regular math programs leading to graduation.
Professional Learning and Taking Action
In our program, professional learning and taking action worked hand-in-hand. Each time we learned something to improve our classroom, without hesitation, we implemented our new strategy. Our room ebbed and flowed to accommodate our learners as our understanding of our class deepened. The unknown unknowns of this process took us both by surprise; we were willing to learn as we created our new blended class with a wide spectrum of learner profiles.
One of the first aspects of our new program was how to be effective team teachers in an environment where individual teaching was the norm. We were both experienced math and science teachers. We felt positive we were ready to move onto the blended model-together as equal teachers in the process. However, we had no framework from which to begin this collaborative teaching process. In my role as a teacher leader, I had had the opportunity to team teach frequently with both elementary and high school teachers so I brought that experience into the process. However, as a high school teacher, the egg carton approach to teaching proved alive and well. The authors of “Beyond PD” identify that on average more than forty percent of teachers have not had the opportunity to work together or observe other classes (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, and Hunter, 2016).
Thankfully, after many years of working together in the same department, and after seeing Duprey’s dynamic and colourful classes, I felt like we had a similar student centered philosophy to frame our classes. Duprey brings structure and routine to the program and insight into designing creative student centered lessons while I bring the passion of working with low achievement math learners and a commitment to using formative assessment to drive instruction and recognize individual strengths and weaknesses. Both Duprey and I use a problem-based approach to mathematics. In the previous school year, we had participated in a workshop series by Peter Liljedahl around the concept of building a thinking classroom. With all the pieces in place, we started on our journey to create an inclusive thinking classroom where all students would have the opportunity to be successful and work to their highest ability.
We learned quickly that managing one class of fifty students was more challenging than managing two classes of twenty-five students. We struggled with the desk arrangements and we lacked whiteboard space for our students. The first few weeks were a challenge of epic proportions. I think we both said, silently and out loud, “What have we done?” and “What were we thinking?” With our own sense of resiliency and belief in the process, we continued to work together despite the daily challenges we faced. Carol Dweck (2008) would be proud; we found our growth mindset through this process of problem solving our way from September to June.
Every day we would tackle and solve one of our problems. Laminated name tags were put on desks at the start of each class to create both a task for students to do and to meet their peers each day as name tags were randomly grouped. This aspect of our class increased the social capital of our group as students from different elementary schools learned each other’s names and worked together in groups of two or three. Using the vertical space provided an opportunity for the teachers to immediately see if students are on the right track and hint and nudge the students towards new approaches. We regrouped our students into pairs, and found more success and accountability within the pairs than with trios. Students loved writing on the vertical boards and working with their new friends on interesting problems. We were starting to find our stride as our classes gelled around the white boards, working with new partners and solving complex math tasks. We started to rely on our EA’s to help us manage groups and learning. We listened to the EA’s when they suggested strategies to help us manage students with learning difficulties and used their expertise to support our classes. We looked to the elementary schools to provide insight about how our students learned in the past. We were starting to fan the flames in Peterson’s fire metaphor.
Our teaching action, grouping, and lesson design was all focused around an understanding of what our students knew and how we could support their learning. Early on in the process, we became regular developers of the class ‘check-in.’ The check-in was often given to students to follow up a series of lessons on a particular topic. We gave all students an opportunity to show their learning. We also provided an adapted check-in to allow students to show an entry-level understanding of the topic. Once we had marked the check-ins, we sorted the pile into three groups so that we understood which students were struggling, understanding, or ready for extending. We planned our next lesson based on the results of the check-ins. We agree with Moore’s (2017) philosophy that students in a class should start together and end together, so sometimes we would put them in different groups for the middle section of the class. There were no set groups in this process as each topic would show areas of strength or weakness in different students. Each group celebrated their successes as they progressed; each group was successful in their own right. We worked to achieve praise that celebrates process, risk taking, and persistence (Dweck, 2008).
Checking for Impact
Every day we used formative assessment as a way of checking in with our transition students. However, how would we really know if our hunch was working and we had in fact created a space where students would be able to go beyond their initial labels of low performers?
Slowly, the evidence of the success of our program started to emerge as we assessed their understanding at the end of each unit. Students who for the first few units had written the adapted tests were reaching for the regular test with confidence. Students were starting to own their own learning. We used portfolios for students to collect the unit tests and any other artefacts of their learning they wanted to save and share. We used the portfolios during Parent Teacher Meetings to provide evidence of student learning and growth. The students we identified with social/emotional or behavioural problems were sitting down and completing the higher level questions successfully. We were seeing steady progress that kept us motivated to continue to develop our blended model.
Have we reached all of the transition students with our class? Unfortunately, our grouping process is not the cure-all to low math achievers. One student transferred out of the group due to a high-level of anxiety with the large group and the problem based approach to mathematics. The students that we needed to work with individually in each class may have struggled to attend on a regular basis. We struggled with many of the transition students’ low attendance and when they did attend class they often had little or no mathematical understanding of the work in progress. Improved attendance would benefit all students especially those students for whom we designed the blended program (OECD, 2016).
Overall, our hunch, that if given the opportunity some of the transition students would be successful at grade level math proved correct. We are pleased to report that several students enrolled in grade nine — without the label transitions attached to their course. Several of the transitions students have shown tremendous growth in their areas of basic operations. A pre-test at the beginning of the year, and given again at the end of the year has shown some students improving their scores considerably although still at a level lower than one would expect at the end of Grade Eight.
Due to changes in policy around class size and composition our blended model will not be able to be repeated in the same way. Monster Math is no longer ‘a thing’.
However, all was not lost in terms of our learning from this year of blending students, classes, and teachers. I learned collaboration is good for everyone—students and teachers. In my personal growth, I have learned that teaching in isolation is no longer the road I am going to take. Working with Duprey has reinvigorated my quest to create a dynamic student-centered classroom. I had been doing it alone for years, and last year I learned that two heads are indeed better than one.
Structurally our inquiry has had another impact: classes will have a heterogeneous mix of students from now on. Learners need to be in dynamic classes where they have an opportunity to learn next to their peers and push themselves to their best ability. As schools and District, let’s hang up the ‘transitions’ class concept. Let’s honour Moore’s (2017) passionate approach to integration by creating classes where everyone is welcome and students are allowed to find an entry point to begin and to receive the support to proceed with success.
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