By Saffron VanGalder

Disappointed with curricula and materials, a math teacher in rural, upstate New York keeps asking questions until she is part of the team writing curricula for the entire state.

Math1602_VanGalder_WebFor much of the six years that I spent as an elementary school classroom teacher, I had this nagging feeling that what we were doing in math just wasn’t working. Too many students didn’t have basic number sense. They couldn’t grasp place value. If I gave them a three-digit number, they had difficulty seeing that 326 is the same as 326 ones, 32 tens, and 6 ones, 3 hundreds and 26 ones, etc.

So I started looking around to see what was working elsewhere and realized pretty quickly that my rural, upstate New York school wasn’t the only place having trouble. Most U.S. students weren’t getting a strong conceptual understanding of math. On key tests, American children rank near the bottom on the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which compares the performance of 15-year-old students across developed nations.

I pulled a few lessons from international curricula — such as Singapore Math — and liked some of what I saw, but I didn’t have the training to really evaluate or deliver those lessons effectively on my own. Then, in fall 2011, the New York State Education Department released parts of a free online math curriculum being developed for districts seeking a resource aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Even though just a taste of what was to come was available on the department’s EngageNY web site, I noticed immediately that the curriculum worked for my students. The kids responded well to its strategies, such as reading, drawing, and writing word problems, all of which worked across a variety of learning styles. And they found great value in the math models used, including the number bond, which is a way of drawing part-whole relationships that lets students visualize the math or see it pictorially. The curriculum also included compelling lessons and sample teacher-student dialogues that helped spark effective conversations about math in my classroom.

Still wanting more, I got in touch with educators who were developing the curriculum for the New York State Department of Education. Only a portion had been written at that point, and they were looking for teachers to work with mathematicians to write new materials. They asked if I would like to be considered. I was caught off guard but intrigued by the application process, which involved explaining how I would teach a math lesson and meeting with grade-level teams. Though I am passionate about math, I never considered that anyone might ask me to actually help write a curriculum.

Teachers are typically handed a textbook and supporting materials and told to use them. In my experience, all too often these materials fail to adequately engage students or to support their conceptual understanding of mathematics. So I jumped at the chance to help develop something better.

As part of the 3rd-grade writing team, made up of teachers like me as well as math experts from higher education, I worked in the evenings, on weekends, and during the summer. As a team, we studied the new standards and the related documents that described the progression of topics across the grades. We analyzed research and best practices. We discussed our own student experiences.

And very importantly, we worked closely with the writers for the grades that came before and after ours to ensure that we wrote a coherent curriculum so that one concept built logically on what came before. For example, it helped us 3rd-grade writers to talk with 2nd-grade teachers about partitioning shapes into equal parts called halves, thirds, and fourths and to 4th-grade teachers about adding and subtracting fractions, to make sure that we covered fractions as numbers on the number line in between.

Not surprisingly, teachers now using the curriculum say it feels to them as though teachers wrote it. They sometimes point to a few lessons they particularly like.

For example, in a 3rd-grade lesson about factors (the number of groups and the number in each group), we ask students to walk around the room and divide themselves into four equal groups. Then, they have to determine the size of each group and write an equation on the board representing the activity (e.g. 4 × ___ = ___)

Teachers love this kind of opportunity to act out mathematics with students and get young children moving while learning.

In another lesson, after an extensive exploration of area, we ask students to use what they’ve learned to complete an architectural project. Teachers find that it is highly engaging to use project-based learning like this to promote growth and demonstrate student understanding.

I was learning so much as a curriculum writer that I decided to dive even deeper and ask my district for a leave of absence to work full time on this effort. My administrators gave me a two-year leave — something that almost never happens in education, though it should. As a result, I contributed to a curriculum that is helping students in my district — and in thousands of other schools and districts across the country.

Now that my leave is over, I’m back in my old school full time in a new leader

ship position as the math coach for prekindergarten through grade 4. Diving into the math standards and writing instructional resources that surround them turned out to be the best professional learning opportunity I could have asked for.

First and foremost, I now have a better understanding of the standards for each grade level and how to teach to them. This in-depth understanding has helped me as a coach, as I work with other teachers trying to make the instructional shifts called for by the Common Core

Understanding the progression of mathematics as it is written in the standards also has been extremely helpful in my planning RTI (Response to Intervention) instruction for struggling learners. For example, if a 3rd grader is having trouble with the basic concept of multiplication, I now know I can go back a step to the 2nd grade standards that build the foundation for multiplication (2.OA.C.3 and 2.OA.C.4).

However, knowing the standards alone is not enough for me to be effective as a math coach. My experience as a curriculum writer helped me think about new teaching strategies for ensuring that children develop a deep understanding of the meaning behind the math we teach them.

Teaching multiplication and division is not solely about memorizing facts. Children have to know what it means to multiply and divide to be able to do it well, to tackle more complex math later on, and to apply what they’re learning in school toward solving real-world problems.

Many teachers would welcome the professional learning opportunity that writing a curriculum provided me and would love to have a greater say in the materials they use every day. I hope more teachers get this opportunity. In the end, it’s just common sense to work with educators to ensure that instructional materials are well-written, well-designed, and practical. The Common Core and the growth of high-quality online educational materials are making it easier for teachers to collaborate across districts and states. I know fads are common in education, but I hope leveraging teachers as partners in the development of instructional resources is more than a passing trend. Our kids, our profession, and our country will be well served if this movement sticks.

SAFFRON VANGALDER (saffron.vangalder@greatminds.net) lives and teaches in Van Etten, a rural community in upstate New York. She works full time as an elementary school math coach and continues to work part time as a writer for Eureka Math, published by the nonprofit Great Minds.

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