President’s Message: Paving the Way to Growth via Onramps

By Terri Magnus, NHTM President

The 2020-2021 school year is upon us whether we are ready or not. It has been a hard one to prepare for and some of us are still facing the possibility that the modality may change without much notice. Most of us will be meeting a new group of students: some will get to meet them face-to-face (though masked and distanced) while others will need to build their learning online.

Onramps for students:  It is always important to gain insight into how well our students have mastered previous material and are ready for this year’s standards; however, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics warns against starting the year with an assessment test or front-loading the year with makeup content. In their 2020 Back to School document for Classroom Teachers, they suggest that we should “focus on creating positive mathematical identity at the beginning of the year” building “on the strengths and experiences of the students without marginalizing or separating students. Giving an assessment test at the start of the year does just the opposite, adding unnecessary stress, highlighting deficiencies, and putting too much value on testing. In addition, pretesting often leads to student grouping or leveling which worsens existing inequities. The NCTM Affiliate, TODOS: Mathematics for All, published a statement on the Mo(ve)ment to Prioritize Antiracist Mathematics: Planning for This and Every School Year which states, “systems that sort students on perceptions of ‘mathematical readiness’ contain hidden racial and ability biases. There is a difference between assessment systems designed to provide teachers with information on how to work from students’ understanding of new mathematical ideas, and assessment systems used to sort students based on perceived readiness. The latter has no place in mathematics education.” 

Both pre-assessments and pre-requisite frontloading may lead to students feeling deficient and incapable—the opposite of the growth mindset we would like to instill in them. (Re-)teaching the prior grade material eats into the precious time available to teach the current year content. Moreover, without the meaningful connections between the mathematics, students are often unable to retain and apply this frontloaded content to new learning.

Without pre-assessment or frontloading, how should we help students meet our grade-level standards?  How will we enable all students to participate fully in mathematical learning? The mathematical education organizations put forth a number of recommendations in their Back to School collection of documents. They assert that we should continue to implement the Eight Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices and Nine Equitable Mathematics Teaching Practices. We should not rush through content, but instead focus on the essential concepts and give students the opportunity to play with, explore, and appreciate mathematics. They encourage us to focus not on the gaps that students might have and instead think about the onramps we can construct so that all of our students will be able to access rich learning opportunities.

In the Illustrative Mathematics blogpost, Looking to the Fall, Part 1: Welcoming and Supporting K-5 Students, Kristen Gray and Kevin Liner discuss many of these concerns and in Part 2 of the blog they present some examples of how to use Achieve the Core’s Coherence Map to develop onramps and mini-assessments. These tools facilitate just-in-time review as students engage in each content standard. Activities are designed to lead from previous year to current year standards and enable all students to participate in observation, reflecting, reasoning, and discussion. Gray and Liner suggest looking at each current grade-level unit in the Coherence Map and identifying the prior grade dependencies. Within these teachers can identify the experiences that students would be building on within their curriculum and choose a few key activities, lead-in examples, or lessons from the prior grade to support and guide students in accessing grade level content. Despite the K-5 reference in the title, the authors’ recommendations are applicable to all levels, even the College Algebra and Functions courses that I will be teaching this fall. These principles are not only for the 2020-2021 school year but encourage us to reexamine our curriculum long term to develop coherent mathematical progressions that invite students into the learning process.

Onramps for NHTM members:  The COVID-19 protocols led our NHTM board members to take on the challenge of providing professional development virtually. Many of you attended one or more of our Summer 2020 Professional Development Zoom presentations. We provided them free of charge thanks to the speakers’ gifts of time and expertise and the platform support from the New Hampshire Department of Education, Manchester Community College, and Rivier University. Thank you to all the presenters!

  • Creating Virtual Engaging Activities for Students, July 15, Ann-Elise Record (Elementary Representative), Jessica Jacques (Media/Public Relations), and Annie Wallace (NHDoE/NCTM/NCSM Representative).
  • Learning Together: A Guide to Remote Learning Apps for Middle and Secondary Teachers, July 29, Raina Eckhardt (Post-Secondary Representative), Doris Garvey (Secondary Representative), and Adam Shaw (Middle Level Representative).
  • Student-Centered Learning in a Pandemic: Using Breakout Rooms and Collaborative Tools to Engage Students in Mathematical Exploration, August 6, Doris Garvey (Secondary Representative), Joe Spadano (ATMNE Representative), and Terri Magnus (President).
  • Supporting Mathematical Instruction and Learning Across the Three Back-to-School Options, August 10, David Costello (guest).

Looking ahead to spring, it appears unlikely that we will be able to hold an onsite conference, but we hope that we can apply our developing virtual experience to offer more events this year. Check your e-mail! 

Our Membership Committee and Board have been paving the way to a new membership structure. We hope to enable all New Hampshire mathematics teachers to belong to our organization for free. To do so will require us to find other revenue and support to keep us running and providing service. We hope to be able to announce plans soon. An invitation will be sent to current members, posted on www.nhmathteachers.org and the NHTM Facebook page, and sent to summer PD participants who asked to join our e-mail distribution list.

NHTM relies on volunteers, whether they serve on the Board, in a regional group, on a conference planning committee, as a presenter, as a mentor, or as a facilitator book study. I would like to increase opportunities for members to become involved at a level that feels right for them. Currently, we are looking for a new webmaster and we will soon need a new Mathesis Blog editor. In the Spring we will be electing an Elementary Representative and NCTM Representative as well as a President-Elect. Yet there are other ways to serve if you don’t want to take on the commitment of belonging to the board! I’m sure each of the Regional Coordinators would love to have help, perhaps even a committee, as they plan and deliver professional development and networking activities. As we anticipate the need to build our virtual presence, we could use more volunteers to present online PD, lead a book study (often the questions are provided by the author), organize a discussion about a recorded webinar, host a Twitter chat, mentor new teachers, pursue social justice issues, write for the Mathesis blog, contribute to NHDoE projects, assist with technology, lobby for teachers and students, or plan future conferences. Perhaps you have other ideas! Participation in NHTM is a great way to get to know teachers beyond your building, to share your experience, and to grow professionally. We hope you will find your “onramp” to greater participation! Let me know if I can help pave the way. I can be reached at NHTMPresident@nhmathteachers.org.

Additional note:  The Back to School document, https://www.nctm.org/Classroom-Resources/Features/Back-to-School-Resources/Back-to-School-Task-Force/, published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics contains separate documents for Math Leaders, District Administrators, and Parents and Families in addition to the Classroom Teacher document referred to above. You may want to share these as you advocate for yourself and your students.

Additional Resources: (Thank you to our NCTM/NCSM Representative Annie Wallace for the suggestions):

Student Achievement Partners (SAP)/Achieve the Core:  2020-2021 Priority Instructional Content in ELA/Literacy and Mathematics

Council of Great City Schools (CGCS):   Addressing Unfinished Learning After Covid-19 School Closures

The Achievement Network (ANet): Important Prerequisites Math Standards

The VA Dept. of Education:   Just in time – Mathematics Quick Checks

The Knowledge Hook:  Return to Learn Program

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