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ASU strengthens Liberty District's math instruction


October 13, 2008

When does 140 plus one equal 3,870?

When 140 refers to teachers in the Liberty Elementary School District, and “one” is Sue Larson, a lecturer in ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership (CTEL), the impact is improved math instruction for all of the district’s 3,870 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Through a partnership between the Buckeye-based Liberty District and CTEL’s Learning Forever with ASU professional development program, Larson has been working since last June with teachers, pupils and administrators to implement new strategies to help pupils better grasp math concepts.

“Too often teachers in all districts tend to emphasize the process of ‘doing math,’ and therefore students don’t understand the connection between what they are doing and why they are doing it,” says Antoinette McLain, a middle-grades math teacher at Rainbow Valley Elementary School. “The result is students who are not problem solvers; they aren’t adequately able to apply their math skills to real-world situations.

“Sue Larson is empowering teachers by building up the teachers’ own conceptual knowledge base – the ‘why’ – so that they can better transfer that knowledge to students. I have no doubt that, as a result of Sue’s work with our district, students will be better able to take charge of their own learning because they will be better prepared.”

The process started in June, when Larson led two weeklong, hands-on training sessions for Liberty District teachers. Each week focused on a different grade range – kindergarten through fourth, followed by fifth through eighth. For each of Liberty’s five schools, at least one teacher from each grade level and one special education or ELL teacher participated. School principals also attended, along with Superintendent Andy Rogers and Assistant Superintendent Paul Stanton.

“The sessions were interactive and activity-based,” Larson says. “We used manipulatives, games and other tools to work on strategies for helping children learn to look for patterns rather than simply using a formula.

“If a mathematical principle makes sense, kids will retain that knowledge, versus just learning a rule. An analogy I like is to ask, ‘Do you remember where you parked at the grocery store three weeks ago?’ If you’re just memorizing a formula, it won’t be any more meaningful to you than where your car was parked.”

The teachers and administrators who participated in the summer session formed a leadership team that is helping the learning process continue. Larson is visiting two or three schools in the district each month and modeling the teaching of lessons. The day begins with all teachers in a particular grade range meeting with Larson; they then observe as she goes into a classroom and teaches a lesson to pupils. The group then reflects upon what transpired in the class and what next steps should be taken. In the afternoon Larson works with all teachers in that school who teach math. She focuses on problem-solving, integrating writing with mathematics, and geometry concepts. She will spend at least three days in each Liberty District school during the current academic year.

According to Superintendent Rogers, “The fact that teachers are able to watch Sue modeling her teaching techniques in a real classroom setting and ask questions afterward makes her work much more powerful.

“Sue is highly skilled in sharing her extensive knowledge about math in a way that teachers can apply directly to improve their practice,” Rogers says. “It’s also important that this effort is continuing throughout the school year. Becoming a better math teacher takes time. If you really want to improve teaching, you need to commit the time and resources to make that happen.”

Larson’s efforts have already produced at least one “Eureka” moment for pupils. Mary Kay Walters, a special education teacher at Westar Elementary School, tells the story of fourth-grade teachers using one of Larson’s methods to teach long division, after the fourth-graders had been struggling with it. “The teachers were amazed that on the first day using Sue’s technique, every single student was able to get the correct answers to their problems,” Walters says.

“It’s common for fourth-graders to struggle with long division, given that it’s a several-step process,” Larson says. “My suggestion was to use repeated subtractions as another way to look at division. For example, if you have 25 cookies and are repeatedly putting four cookies on a plate, how many times can you subtract four cookies before you run out?”

Walters, who spends time in various classrooms throughout the day, says she has seen a big difference in the way math is being taught since the project with Larson began. “There are many more hands-on activities that allow students to develop a deeper understanding of math concepts. They also are doing much more problem-solving. The students are really enjoying math and are becoming much more confident of their ability to do math.”

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for me,” Larson says. “I’m not just coming in, doing a workshop and leaving. I feel I’m involved in helping create a community of learners.” Adds Rogers, “Sue has become part of the Liberty family. Word about her impact has spread beyond the walls of the schools to the parents and the community.”

In the summer of 2009, Larson and the leadership team from the school district will assess their progress and plan follow-up steps.

Larson’s work with the Liberty Elementary School District was arranged through Learning Forever with ASU, a CTEL professional development program designed by educators for educators.

“We strongly believe teachers are lifelong learners,” says Debbie Robinson, Learning Forever with ASU coordinator. “Sue Larson is just one of our many talented instructors, who are highly experienced teachers, faculty members, and educational consultants within the community.”

Learning Forever with ASU recently expanded its workshop offerings to ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, along with workshops held on ASU’s West campus and at K-12 school sites at the request of local districts. CTEL also makes Learning Forever with ASU workshops available to its current students.

More information is available at www.ctel.asu.edu/community/learning_forever/.