News from Synergy School
Two students sat in tiny chairs at the front of the classroom as third grade teacher Teresa taught a math lesson. The goal was to learn the multiples of 13, and the two students vied with each other to give the correct answers. When Teresa erased all the sums and invited the whole class to join in, the other students called out the answers in eager sing-song voices.
The occasion was Synergy’s first ever “Math Night,” a presentation for parents who wanted to learn more about the school’s math program. The two pumped up students at the front of the classroom were Synergy dads; all their classmates were parents as well.
The evening started with a slideshow presentation describing Synergy’s math program, and how it has changed in recent years. During the 2010-11 school year, Synergy teachers began attending “Making Math Real” professional development courses. Making Math Real, a multi-sensory, comprehensive program aligned to state standards, is sequential, breaking down all basic math content into its concrete elements, while moving all instruction gradually to the abstract. New concepts are added by grade so students learn a common language that is consistent as they gradually master more complex skills. In addition, Synergy has revised and updated its K-8 math curriculum maps, created a new classroom space for downstairs math classes, and started using an online math program called Mathspace for grades 5 through 8.
There has also been a significant change in Synergy’s middle school math program in recent years, as teachers concluded that mixed grade math classes weren’t meeting all students’ needs. As of 2013-14, all middle school math classes are exclusively single grade, and students learn in smaller groups.
After the slideshow, a parent asked for a summary of Synergy’s math philosophy. “We want kids to learn math fluency and critical thinking,” Tanya replied. “We want kids to feel comfortable with math, and to gain a deep understanding of math concepts. It’s not about getting the right answer, it’s about the strategy you use to get there. So we’ll ask kids to explain the strategy they used, versus the answer they got. This is murder for kids, especially at first. They want to give you that right answer!”
This focus on strategy helps students gain a deeper understanding of and comfort with numbers and basic math concepts, and is consistent with federal Common Core State Standards. Synergy math classes also include group work, so students can figure out math problems together. “It’s great to see kids working collectively and having a conversation about math,” said middle school math teacher Sogolon. “‘Oh, you did that, but see here’s where you went wrong.’ They really get into it and help each other learn.”
After the presentation, parents attended workshops on math in grades 1 through 4, and middle school. In the Eastenders classroom, Ebony, Annie, Teresa, and Sandy introduced parents to some of the basics of the “Making Math Real” approach. As Teresa walked parents through the 9-lines multiplication lesson, for example, she explained that each equation— from 1 x 13 to 9 x 13— has it’s its own particular placement on the 9-lines. It also has its own name (any number multiplied by 1 is “the baby,” for example, while numbers multiplied by 9 are “biggest in the house.”) The informal language, as well as verbal repetition and taps on the board, respond to the needs of students with a variety of learning styles by creating story-based visual imagery.
In the middle school classroom, Sogolon presented a lesson on volume, using both special graphing paper and plastic blocks. “Some kids who aren’t necessarily that comfortable in math have a strong spatial sense and really get it when they can work through a problem with their hands,” he explained.
Attendance at Synergy’s first Math Night was high, and parents were enthusiastic. (“I wish I’d learned math this way,” more than one said.) As a takeaway and a bit of homework, Tanya urged parents to keep their own apprehensions about math to themselves. “Many of us have a tendency to say, ‘I’m bad at math.’ But math is a tool, a skill — it’s not something that anyone is inherently good or bad at. We want kids to understand that, and parents to reinforce that at home.”
If you missed Math Night, the Mathspace website (https://mathspace.co) has a downloadable app for students to practice their math skills at home with step by step support. You can also visit the Making Math Real site (http://www.makingmathreal.org/) and read more about the philosophy behind the practice or even sign up for a class yourself!
— by Connie Matthiessen
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