How can I fit it all in?

In 2015, Beth wrote about the Primary Mathematics adoption process at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. Here’s an update on the school’s progress.


stab_logoAs the year winds down and I look back at all that my students have learned this past year, I still feel panicked at what’s left to be covered.  This is the end of a 3-year adoption cycle of Primary Mathematics and while I’ve been able to cover more curriculum than in the previous 2 years, I am still left wondering, “How can I fit it all in?”

In the fall of 2013, we adopted the Primary Mathematics curriculum in Kindergarten through sixth grades.  We knew this would come with its challenges but felt strongly that if we were going to offer our students the “world’s best mathematics curriculum,” then we needed to offer it to all, not just those who made the K, 1, 2 cut.

With this plan, we knew there would be time spent filling in holes in our first year, teaching skills and concepts that the students were missing, and building a solid foundation in number sense and place value.  We accepted the fact that we would not cover all of the curriculum that first year, and worked with Cassy Turner to develop a sequence for each grade level that included teaching critical lessons from prior grade levels.

Year 2Beth with grade 4 student

In the second year, teachers were feeling a sense of relief.  We’d made it through that challenging first year.  We experienced the curriculum from start to finish, well – at least our version of it, and we felt confident.  We weren’t faced with the need to back-teach (as much). Our students entered the year having learned and retained a deeper understanding of those critical math concepts.

With Cassy’s advice, we created a new plan for our second year.  We knew the lessons that had been skipped the previous year and teachers worked together to map out a Kindergarten through sixth-grade sequence that allowed us to get further through the content, and more importantly, accounted for previously omitted lessons.  If we didn’t teach a lesson on geometry to our third graders our first year, we made sure those students would get those lessons in fourth grade our second year.

The year ended, and our standardized test scores showed slight increases in problem solving and algebra readiness, both areas of statistical concern with our previous curriculum.

Year 3

Entering year three, we felt confident in our abilities to deliver lessons.  Along with our students, our staff had developed a deeper, conceptual understanding of math.  We were able to effortlessly explain new concepts, differentiate on the fly, and anticipate misconceptions.  We incorporated anchor tasks, journaling and finally had a grasp on how to effectively use all of the materials.

We entered the year with the goal of teaching the entire curriculum.  Halfway through the year we were teaching material nearly a month ahead of our previous two years and felt really good about it.  Then came…

  • rehearsals for performances
  • grandparents’ day presentations
  • spring field trips…
  • field day…
  • and all sorts of other school commitments.

By April, we had just about lost the scheduling lead that we had enjoyed in December.

So, here I find myself once again faced with the task of choosing one lesson over another and prioritizing the importance of skills and concepts that I may or may not have the time to teach.  Fortunately, the list to choose from is smaller than in the years before. I’ve been able to cover almost all of the material, nearly reaching the goal.

I consider myself lucky to have been in a situation of specializing in math in the lower grades over the past 3 years.  I have been able to experience the strengths of the sequence, which in my mind, is one of the pillars of success of a Singapore Math curriculum.  Going forward, I know it will be easier to thoughtfully prioritize content to eliminate the risk of creating gaps or holes in student learning that could potentially weaken their foundation.

As I leave the school, I look forward to bringing this wealth of knowledge that I gained over the past 3 years to Math Champions and look forward to assisting other schools that are facing the question of, “How can I fit it all in?”

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Our Journey to Singapore: A Singapore Math Adoption Success Story

Beth Curran Preschool – 6th Grade Math Department Chair, St. Anne’s-Belfield School Singapore Math Teacher and Trainer

Beth Curran

For some time, I’ve wanted to share stories of schools that have successfully implemented a Singapore Math curriculum.

To present the first such case study, I asked my colleague Beth Curran to summarize the adoption process at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, an independent Pre-K to 12 school in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Please contact me if your school has a story to contribute.

 


 Our Journey to Singapore

by Beth Curran
Preschool – 6th Grade Math Department Chair, St. Anne’s-Belfield School
Singapore Math Teacher and Trainer

stab_logoIt all began with a strategic plan.  In 2011, St. Anne’s-Belfield School released its 2011-2016 Strategic Plan.  The first of six goals focused on teaching and learning in the 21st century.  Key elements to this goal included teaching with depth rather than breadth, teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills, improving the quality of our computation, and ensuring that our pedagogy reflects researched based best practices.  The Action Plan that followed gave direct mention to Singapore Math as a curriculum to explore.

While teachers felt strongly that the students were leaving our Lower School (grades Kindergarten through four) very well prepared for Middle School (grades five through eight), we had to ask a tough question; could we be doing better?

Why Singapore Math?

As the Lower School Math Coordinator at the time, I was charged with taking a critical look at the Lower School’s current math curriculum and learning all I could about Singapore Math.  The more I learned, the more I was convinced that Singapore Math would be a great match for us.  It was almost as if the Strategic Plan was written with Singapore Math in mind.  The curriculum teaches concepts to mastery, focusing on depth rather than breadth.  Critical thinking and problem-solving are embedded within the curriculum, not taught as a stand-alone unit.  Concepts are introduced, practiced, and applied immediately to solve problems.  Computation and numeracy are also a major focus.  Check, check, and check!

Learning Village at St. Anne's-Belfield School

Learning Village at St. Anne’s-Belfield School

Not all of the homeroom teachers were as enthusiastic as I was.  It was a daunting task convincing them that learning a new math curriculum, on the tails of learning a new writing curriculum, was a good thing.  St. Anne’s-Belfield’s Head of School, being the visionary that he is, saw an opportunity to not only implement a new math curriculum, but to change the way math instruction is delivered at the Lower School level.  If we were going to ask our teachers to become Singapore Math specialists, why not hire and train dedicated math teachers?  And that’s just what he did.  Four math teachers were hired to deliver math instruction and these dedicated math specialists would co-teach math with the homeroom teacher taking on a supporting role.  This had an added benefit of cutting our student to teacher ratio in half during math class.

With the faculty in place and the Primary Mathematics materials ordered, we set out to train our dedicated math teachers in Kindergarten through sixth grade.  We contracted with Cassy Turner, Singapore Math Specialist and Trainer to work with our math teachers for an intensive one-week boot camp.  We learned the ins and outs of mental math and the bar model.  We asked questions, practiced, collaborated, practiced, designed an implementation schedule, and practiced.  Cassy’s enthusiasm and extensive knowledge left us feeling confident to tackle the upcoming year.  We knew professional development was crucial to a successful implementation and with that in mind we continued our relationship with Cassy throughout the year.  She made three more trips to the school, observing and teaching lessons and providing her guidance to keep us on track.

Successes and Challenges

Fast forward to today.  We are now a year and a half into our implementation. Our students are stronger problem-solvers than ever before.  Their computational skills have shown marked improvement.  Their overall sense of number and place value has increased.  Our students are confident and persevere through challenging problems.

We have done a lot of things really well.  We understood and placed value on professional development.  This is not a curriculum that can be picked up and taught from the Teacher’s Guides.  Most teachers did not learn math the way that a Singapore Math curriculum is taught.  Training is key.  If not trained, teachers will revert to teaching math the way they learned it.  Having a successful plan for ongoing professional development is critical to a successful implementation.

We put value on mathematics instruction at the Lower School level.  We saw the need for math specialists and took a huge financial risk to improve our instruction.

We implemented the curriculum in Kindergarten through sixth grade.  We felt so strongly about the benefits of the curriculum that we knew that even one or two years of exposure would be better than none.  This has been one of the most challenging hurdles of our implementation.  We worked with Cassy to anticipate and develop a plan for “back-teaching” missing skills.   In grades three through six, this plan guided us through our first year and fortunately, Kindergarteners through second grade students benefited from needing very minimal “back-teaching.”  Developing a relationship with a knowledgeable Singapore Math consultant is crucial.

If there was an area for improvement, it was parent communication and education.  We hosted a parent night early into the school year to give parents an overview of the curriculum and a brief introduction to some of the components that are unique to Singapore Math.  That wasn’t enough.  Parents didn’t learn math the way their children were now learning it. The focus of Singapore Math is to develop conceptual understanding before learning the mathematical steps or procedures.  Parents need to understand and support the school in teaching math this way.  Parent education is not an option; it is a requirement of a successful implementation.  In our second year, we designed a plan for parent chats spread throughout the year with topics including fact practice, mental math strategies, and bar modeling as a tool for problem-solving.  Your professional development provider or consultant can assist you in designing a parent education program that meets the needs of your school.

Our journey continues and our students are stronger math students as a result.  The first year was clearly the most challenging.  Our commitment to professional development, perseverance, and acceptance of this unfamiliar approach to teaching math has guided us and we are confident that each passing year will continue to confirm the benefits of teaching a Singapore Math curriculum.

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Singapore Math® Schools Share Success Stories

Word Problems 2Excellence in Canadian math education — by way of Singapore

The Head of School at Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, Ontario explains why his school adopted Math from Singapore and how it differs from other curricula:

We introduced Singapore Math to our school three years ago after researching a number of programs and determining that this method had the best achievement results internationally.

Singapore Math deliberately slows down the teaching of math, taking more time to ensure students grasp each concept before moving on. For example, students might spend two weeks on multiplying fractions, instead of spending a day or two and then coming back to it later.

Students use visuals aids such as bars and blocks before they start writing equations with “x” and “y,” so they achieve a deeper grasp of the actions they perform. This visualization is not deployed nearly as much in Canadian classrooms. In most settings, you would see a concrete-abstract strategy whereby multiplication would use physical objects then shift to the abstraction of lining up numbers in a multiplication equation. Singapore Math introduces a middle step between the concrete and abstract called the pictorial approach. The students draw a diagram of the concepts going on. This extends to diagraming word problems on paper rather than the often frustrating scenario of trying to picture a problem in their heads.

One happy result of all this is that when students reach algebra, they’ve already met the core concepts pictorially; indeed in most cases students in grade 6 are able to understand algebraic concepts that normally wouldn’t be grasped until mid-way through grade 8.

North Cross School transitions to Singapore Math

North Cross School is the first school in the Roanoke Valley (Virginia) to fully implement the Singapore Math® curriculum.

Beth Curran is the Mathematics Department Chair in the lower school at St. Anne’s-Belfield in Charlottesville and led the training at North Cross School. When asked about their conversion to Singapore Math she said “during our first year of implementation our students were saying ‘I understand math now.’ One of our second grade teachers commented, ‘At this point in the year (first trimester), I have never had students with such a solid understanding of place value.’ Upon conclusion of our first year, our math team felt that our students’ problem solving skills made huge leaps. We also noticed that students were persevering through difficult problems that in the past (or even the beginning of the year) they would have given up on. We didn’t teach perseverance, necessarily, but concluded that because students were learning and practicing skills to mastery that it equipped them with the tools to tackle challenging problems. They always had a place to start.”

North Cross Lower School Director, Deborah Jessee, believes that “a strong education in lower school builds a foundation of lifelong learning. It lays the pathways, creates excitement, and energizes students for the future. Singapore Math is a great way to enhance our lower school academic program and teach children not to be intimidated by new concepts and that it’s okay to explore other ways of learning. They learn to not be intimidated by a complex problem. When a student understands how to break down a problem and can figure out how to solve it, that academic skill translates well to other subjects and helps them prepare for ACT and SAT testing down the road.

[Editor’s Note: Over the past several years, I’ve had the honor of helping St. Anne’s-Belfield School with its Singapore Math adoption. I’m delighted that Beth Curran was able to take her experiences and successfully train teachers at North Cross School. Congratulations, Beth!]

Singapore math forced teachers to learn new way to teach

Learning Singapore Math in Henderson County (Kentucky) first took hard work by teachers; previous math approach “made cooks…this makes chefs.”

At the heart of the Singaporean approach to math is problem solving. This math curriculum doesn’t focus as much on memorizing procedures, but understanding numbers and how they interact, officials said.
It’s the how and the why, [third-grade teacher Evelyn] Cummings said.
Educators said this isn’t how mathematics has been taught in the United States.
“Before I would teach my students a process, instead of problem solving. Now, we’re teaching these kids to be problem-solvers,” Cummings said.
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Top 10 Tips when Using a Singapore Math® Curriculum

Top-10I get LOTS of questions from teachers and administrators with questions about the Singapore Math® program. Recently, several fellow trainers have reached out to seek my advice (Wow!). One asked:

What would you are say the biggest 10 things to consider when using/implementing a Singapore Math curriculum?

Here’s my response. Did I miss anything?

Top 10 Tips for Using the Singapore Math® Curriculum

1. This isn’t the math most of us were raised on. It looks different and teachers cannot rely on their knowledge of themselves as elementary students. As such, the Teacher’s Guide is your math bible. You don’t have to read the lessons out loud as you teach, but you need to follow the sequence and pedagogy.

2. And that pedagogy includes Concrete, Pictorial AND Abstract. Teachers are usually darned good at the abstract, but above grade 2, not so hot with the concrete and pictorial. Yes, I know your students can solve the 3rd grade word problems without the pictorial bar model, but if you don’t teach the bar model with content they know, you certainly can’t do it with content they don’t know.

3. Placement tests assess content knowledge. Keep in mind that a score below 80% on the Singaporemath.com Placement tests does not mean a student is not bright or capable – it does mean that they haven’t been taught the content yet. The Primary Mathematics materials are generally one year ahead of current U.S. materials and even bright students can’t just skip a year of content and expect to be successful.

4. When teaching Concretely, the SmartBoard is not enough. Students must actually use the manipulatives. Yes they can work with partners, but students must use them, not just the teacher. Buy or make place value disks for whole numbers and decimals if you want your students to understand the content.

5. The equations are written horizontally to de-emphasize the process (that algorithm you’re so good at!) and focus on Number Sense. These mental math strategies are challenging for teachers as they were usually taught procedures only. Expect to practice the strategies yourself. Embrace the mental math!

6. Textbooks are not a curriculum. The teacher is the most important component of the curriculum. If you don’t understand the math in a lesson, how will the students? Read the Teacher’s Guide and prepare lessons. (See #1 – and below)

7. Get your own copy of the workbooks and work every problem as you expect the students to work them. It’s true that the Teacher’s Guides have the answers. You need the solutions to know if a student’s thought process is on target. In Singapore, 50% of elementary teachers have  a 2 year degree – they aren’t math specialists either! The textbooks are designed to help teach teachers the math they need to know. (Same with any placement test you give: you work the problems first.)

8. Follow the maxim: Go slow to go fast. All teachers do not have to be on the exact same lesson at the exact same time. Sometimes you need to slow down and ensure that your students are understanding the content. In grades 2-4 it seems as though it takes f o r e v e r to get through the “A” books. Then applying the skills mastered in the “B” books is a breeze. (In Kindergarten and Grade 1, the “B” book will slow students down. In Grade 5, the books seem more evenly paced) Knowing what your students know and can do means you must be constantly informally assessing your students.

9. Rethink your Home Enjoyment. One big difference between the Singaporean and U.S. cultures is on the emphasis of mastering basic facts. Parents in Singapore believe it’s their job to do this. In the U.S.? Well it’s the school’s. Just as we expect students to read very night to improve their reading fluency, so too should they practice math facts every night to improve fact fluency.

10. This isn’t your parents math either! (See #1) Many schools hold a Singapore Math night to introduce the new curriculum to the parents. Share with parents how the curriculum differs from what they’ve seen before, samples of the materials, some strategies, a couple of word problems and you’ll fend off weeks of questions and email.

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Direct from the classroom: Challenges & Successes with Singapore Math implementations

Some teacher challenges & successes with Singapore math one year or three months after adopting the program are below. Click to see larger images.

During follow-up in-services, I like to have teachers meet in grade level groups and spend time discussing the challenges and successes they have had thus far with their teaching of Singapore Math. Each grade level is then asked to list these challenges and successes on a poster and share with the group as a whole. This allows us time to compare and share lessons from the content fresh on their minds.

There is so much challenge the first year when implementing a new curriculum, it’s helpful to take a few moments to reflect on how many successes the teachers and students have had. These posters then guide subsequent  teacher learning as we focus on the concepts that they are finding challenging.

 

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