PITTSBURG — Instead of sitting in classrooms unengaged, Pittsburg High School students have started having conversations about math because of their instructors’ new teaching style — a style which focuses on application and collaboration.

During the Oct. 9 board meeting, PHS Principal Phil Bressler and Math Teacher Rhonda Willis presented the progress students and teachers have made with the new style.

Bressler, who was a math teacher before becoming a principal years ago, said the change is not the curriculum, but the way it is delivered to the students.

“Traditionally, there are those kids sitting in the room that are unengaged, but present,” he said. “This delivery method requires every student to be engaged on a daily basis —  they can’t sit there and not engage.”

Willis agreed.  

“What we are trying to do is get kids to be thinkers,” she said.

Willis was part of the 2017 review committee of math standards. This was when she realized math needed to change.

“Being part of that, it really brought to my attention how much math in Kansas needs to change,” she said.

Last year, Willis and the other math teachers began looking at brain research and at the “growth mindset” when it comes to math. The teachers had a book study over “Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching” by Jo Boaler, which explains the brain’s process during mathematics learning, how to provide math activities, giving students a positive math mindset and more.
The teachers also had training this summer where they rerouted their ways of teaching to better suit the new style. They also found a new textbook which follows the style.

The way the class works is students are put in groups together — they don’t receive group grades — but they are grouped together for the learning processes and they all have goals and tasks — task manager, resource manager and recorder, reporter, facilitator — they all have specific jobs to do for each activity, Willis said.

“We will explain what their goal is for this particular task and what they are looking for and will go around as they are doing the task making sure that they are making the connections they need to be making,” Willis said. “After that task, we bring everyone together to see what they have learned.”

Bressler and Willis said this new style doesn’t mean that teachers have stepped back and quit instructing. They said some schools have not been successful because they may have stepped back too much and expected the students to learn completely on their own.

Willis said the main difference between the traditional style and the one they are using is instead of feeding information to students which they will practice over and over, now they are  building a conceptual understanding ahead of time and end up getting to the algebra eventually.

“It's like doing the word problems first and then doing the math problems along the way,” Willis said. “The beauty of it is that kids are owning the content. “I’ve been teaching a long time — this is 25 years — and I’m seeing kids do things I never thought they could do — what they are thinking, what they are saying and what they are willing to try. This nine week period has been incredible to me and I have really been impressed.”

She said one thing she think students needed to adjust to was filling up the classroom with learning and not having an extra 20 minutes built in for them to do homework.

“The homework assignments are usually five to seven problems,” Wilis said. “It is expected that they do all of it at home.  

Willis said it could be hard for some students because they like the “kick-start” in the classroom.

“We spend so much time learning in the classroom it’s not homework time in the classroom,” she said. “We are learning, we are discovering, we are hands on, communicating and collaborating so those homework pieces are expected to be done at home.”

Homework is in the textbook and there are online resources available for the students and some of the teachers put additional resources and keys online for students. Homework is given a “complete” or “incomplete” instead of a percentage grade, Willis said.

USD 250 Superintendent Destry Brown asked what adjustments the teachers have made to help with the homework and tests — the first test did not go well, Willis said.

Willis said it was primarily algebra two which had issues.

“The main issue is that they have been coming in with weak algebra one skills,” she said.

She said this shouldn’t be as much of an issue once the algebra one students who are being taught the new way come into algebra two.

At the end of the semester the teachers will have a total on the success and failure rate to share with the board.

— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at spotter@morningsun.net or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.