LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 8, 2012) — Teachers from across Kentucky showed how their new approaches to teaching math and literacy skills are paying off for students, both in greater interest in learning and achievement results.
An audience of about 200 from Kentucky and other states learned from the teachers’ experiences. The new strategies are backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and have been guided in Kentucky by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and the state Department of Education, which is now leading expansion of the program. The new approach to math puts students in the center of problem solving that taps students’ thinking skills; the new language arts assignments require deeper thinking and stronger writing in English, science and social studies classes.
The approaches highlighted at the June 4 showcase here are now being used in 17 school districts across the state, up from nine districts last year. Nationally, the project is expanding to new states, with educators from Colorado, Louisiana and Florida in the audience here to learn about what Kentucky teachers are doing.
“This is the second year we’ve heard that all teachers in the state need to be able to do this type of work,” said Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee. “I know I want my grandkids to have the chance to be part of classrooms where teachers do this.”
“When this is done right, we’re seeing how much more engaged it makes kids,” said Gary McCormick, secondary literacy and curriculum consultant for the Kenton County school district, where the literacy approach is being used by four middle schools and three high schools. “Our teachers using this see that scores on assessments are higher because students are processing learning in a way that’s more enduring.”
Districts in the Literacy Design Collaborative have created “template tasks,” or writing assignments that challenge students to use reading and writing skills to explore concepts in science and social studies while building their language arts skills. The program involves not only English teachers, but shows science and social studies teachers how to use strong writing to build students’ thinking skills.
“This helped students really get into what they were learning about, and when it came time to write, they were ready and knew how to find evidence in the texts they had read,” said Melissa Henson, a middle school language arts teacher in the Jackson Independent school district. She said the literacy collaborative show how reading and writing work together to support learning.
Meanwhile, the Math Design Collaborative focuses on building students’ understanding of how math concepts work through multi-step problems often solved in small groups, rather than memorizing formulas and plugging them into a page of workbook problems. It also uses assessments throughout math work to see how well individual students are learning and uses that information to guide and improve teaching.
“This makes students talk about the math, which is wonderful,” said Melissa Plank, a teacher in Fleming County. “We start out by finding out where our students are and then working to meet their immediate learning needs.” She and fellow teacher Tiffany Lane said that the program has helped struggling students see success and has made reserved students more active contributors in class.
Math teachers from Warren County shared similar results. Christa Lemily, a math teacher at South Warren Middle School, said her class spends more time discussing different methods of thinking. The problem-solving activities, she added, give students who may have trouble with math time to work through what is happening in various problems.
“We are always trying to bring them back to being able to explain what is their mathematical reasoning,” said Andrew Oliver, a teacher at Magoffin County High School. “We see some students getting there in very different ways than others.”
In addition to the sites using the teaching strategies, state officials are also using elements of the program to define and increase effective teaching across the state. Kandie Daniel, a middle school teacher in Daviess County and president of the district’s teachers union, said the literacy strategies hold great promise for helping teachers in all content areas improve what students are learning.
“Everybody takes ownership for literacy now,” she said of integrating practices from the Gates-funded work. “It’s not just the language-arts teacher’s job.”
Gallatin County schools Superintendent Dot Perkins said the effect of the practices from the new approaches are “contagious,” and have caused an enthusiastic response from teachers in her district.
Education Commissioner Terry Holliday praised the work of the math and literacy teams. The state education department is continuing to spread the practices of the groups through a grant from the Gates Foundation.
“We’re seeing more kids engaged and teachers excited — worn out, but excited,” Holliday told the audience in opening the meeting here. “You get that enthusiasm for learning and the results will follow.”
Silberman said the work of both groups remains in early stages but is showing great promise.
Kentucky districts currently involved in either the literacy or math program or both include: Boone County, Boyle County, Daviess County, Fayette County, Fleming County, Gallatin County, Jackson Independent, Jefferson County, Jessamine County, Kenton County, Lee County, Magoffin County, Owen County, Rockcastle County, Simpson County, Warren County and Washington County.