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Nashua educators take a new approach to math

Union Leader Correspondent

September 30. 2012 11:46PM
Dr. Crisp Elementary teacher Katie Stone discusses block numbers with third-grader Megan Wigget. A new program, Balanced Math, is being used across the school district this year. (SIMON RIOS PHOTO)
NASHUA - Math teachers in every grade across the district are using a new program designed to develop what one teacher called 'thinkers, not just task-completers.'

Kids don't master stuff in one day, third-grade instructor Katie Stone told the Board of Education last week during a presentation on Balanced Math.

'It really allows them to create their own learning and understand how those conclusions should work,' said Stone, who teaches at Dr. Crisp Elementary.

During a recent math class at Dr. Crisp, the topics were reading a clock, deciphering numerical patterns, and learning numbers through objects. Students were quick to shoot up their hands and approach the whiteboard to show how they got their answers.

'I see more of them being confident,' Stone said when the class was over.

After learning their lessons through computation and class-wide conversations, students are asked to write 'reflections' on what they did wrong and right. If a student confused the minute hand with the second hand, they write it down. If a student uses her fingers to arrive at a solution, she writes that, too.

'Now they're seeing that it's OK to make mistakes, and the next day they're going to see that problem again, so if they remember what they did this day, the next day they're going to remember (the solutions),' Stone said.

Balanced Math is based on a five-part approach: computational skills, problem-solving, conceptual understanding, mastery of math facts and common formative assessment.

A few dozen Nashua teachers attended a two-day workshop during the summer to learn the first two parts. In turn, they will teach their colleagues Balanced Math before returning to learn the remaining concepts. The program will be put in place district-wide over three years; the first section will be universal by January.

Engaging students

According to the developers of Balanced Math, many teachers have not received sufficient math training and instead put the emphasis on achieving high scores on assessment tests instead of developing conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills.

In Balanced Math, the first part of every math lesson is devoted to number-crunching, while the remainder gives kids the space to discuss their work.

During the discussions, students correct their own work. When they get something right, Stone tells them to give themselves a check mark - a huge motivator to 7- and 8-year olds, she said.

Stone told of a student who raised his hand and received a check mark; the next day 13 students rushed to provide the same answer, all receiving check marks.

The participatory model also allows students to engage in the teaching process. When Stone forgets to mention something, a student can chime in and let the class know how they approached a problem.

They're also motivated to be part of the correcting process, Stone said, something traditionally done by the teacher alone.

One of Stone's students, Anthony Imbimbo, was eager to share his thoughts.

'I love math. It's my favorite subject,' he said.

Classmate Erien Cintron said Balanced Math 'seems pretty interesting and I like interesting things.'

Cintron said his favorite part is figuring out problems. 'I count it up, then I try to use my fingers, and that's how I get the answer.'

Math scores

Balanced Math was first designed in 2000 for kindergarten through eighth grade. The method allows teachers to map student progress; kids having a hard time become the focus of more specialized attention.

The impetus for the program comes largely from assessment scores across the district. In 2011, 60 percent of third-graders at Dr. Crisp achieved proficient scores on NECAP's math section, compared with 73 percent in the district and 78 percent statewide.

Stone said the goal is for 90 percent of students to achieve mastery.

Jane Quigley, principal at Dr. Crisp, said that with the phasing out of NECAP assessments and the introduction of Common Core Standards, Balanced Math will give students the tools to excel in the subjects they will be tested on.

'Balanced Math is a way of thinking about your learning and being able to know that no matter what we give you for numbers, you're going to know what to do with them, and if you get stuck, how to figure it out with what you do know,' she said.

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