In Common (National, regional, and local news from the Coalition of Essential Schools) – Developing Collaboration and Learning Among Math Educators

During recent visits to small, alternative schools in New York, Colorado, and California, with an eye to teaching mathematics, I noticed two particularly common themes. First, many small schools struggle to teach math effectively using alternative methods and second, the math teachers I met were all incredibly open and enthusiastic about sharing resources and ideas with me. As a new math teacher at a small school struggling to effectively teach mathematics through problem solving and with critical thinking myself, I value the collaborative experiences I’ve had with other math educators. This same spirit of collaboration and commitment to teaching in new ways inspires the Colorado Math Innovators’ Forum (MIF).

The MIF was originally started to provide “curricular, assessment, and philosophical support” to math educators in innovative or alternative high schools in Colorado. The group, initiated by Jimmy Frickey and Jason Cushner (both former Eagle Rock Math Instructional Specialists), is now organized and run by the teacher members themselves, and makes use of a hybrid between the Japanese Lesson Study model and the Tuning Protocol process developed by the Coalition of Essential Schools. The MIF provides opportunities for teachers to come together and present lessons, assessments, or other activities they have used, along with examples of student work. After the work is critiqued and reflected upon by peers, the presenting teacher or teachers agree to revise the lesson based on the feedback from the group. The hope is that slowly but surely the revised lessons, assessments, and activities will grow into a useful resource for schools and educators. After participating in my first session with the group, I quickly realized that the process of professional collaboration happening was at least as important as the resources being created.

My participation in the MIF has been an invaluable part of my first two years of teaching math. I was fortunate enough to participate in the MIF as a presenter, participant, and facilitator, and I gained something new in each role. While presenting my own work in a forum was somewhat intimidating at first, the positive participation of other members and the insights I gained from thinking critically about my own work quickly outweighed these fears. As one member of the MIF said, “The group holds me accountable to being a ‘math innovator.’ Sometimes we call ourselves innovators but then look at our classroom practices and they don’t really look that innovative. This group has helped me try to do a better job at putting into practice what I believe about math education.”

As a participant giving feedback at subsequent sessions, I have learned how other teachers have taught and assessed student work in a variety of contexts and classes. The work we looked at has ranged from activities to discover the Pythagorean Theorem to 3-D geometry performance tasks to projects evaluating cell phone plans and finding jobs – all while emphasizing critical thinking, problem-solving and important mathematical concepts. I always left each session not only with concrete ideas and materials from some truly innovative educators, but also with a renewed energy for teaching and innovating in my own classroom.

The most recent session of the MIF took place early in July at Eagle Rock. The session focused on the mathematics portfolios used at Eagle Rock and how teachers can most effectively identify “big ideas” in mathematics and then find ways to support students in not only understanding those ideas but also documenting their learning and understanding. It provided participants the opportunity to reflect on and discuss what’s most important to include in a mathematics curriculum and to examine how we assess and support student understanding of mathematics. Michael Soguero, a former math teacher and now the Director of Professional Development at Eagle Rock, has participated in multiple MIF sessions. He explains, “Sharing and reflecting on student work is a key to continuous improvement. The Math Innovators meetings support me in thinking through what’s most important in supporting student learning. The diverse perspectives that come to the table enrich my own thinking.”

I believe the MIF provides a great example of how a commitment to professional collaboration and continuous learning, for new and experienced teachers, can both support educators and improve the educational practices at small schools. In the future, I hope we can continue to share and build off the resources and energies of groups like the MIF with a wider community of educators.