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A Comprehensive Math Program

“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”   anonymous

My colleague and mentor (from afar) Cathy Fosnot describes traditional math instruction as’ “teaching math as if it were a dead language.” rather than the living, dynamic and fluid field of study that it actually is when it is taught effectively.  As a teacher, consultant and now, principal, I’ve spent most of the past 20 plus years trying to help students understand mathematics this way while trying to defend this practice to parents and other skeptics (including, quite often, my own colleagues).

It was with appreciation and a sense of relief that I viewed the short video (above) that our York Region District Mathematics Curriculum Team created last spring. The video was posted to YouTube with the intention of defining what effective math instruction should look like, sound like and feel like for all of the students in our district, from kindergarten to grade 12, and help communicate the components of an effective, comprehensive mathematics program to our community and stakeholders.

Unlike the math instruction many of us recall (insert unpleasant memories here) a comprehensive math program (CMP) is a synthesis of meaningful problems (drawn from real contexts), teacher-led mini-lessons (based upon the struggles students are encountering) and games and puzzles (to support student curiosity and make connections to real life). These three components form the basis of the math instruction we provide at Park Avenue PS and I am really proud of the manner in which all of our teachers have embraced this framework.

The component where we are applying the most focus at this time is the mini-lesson- a 5-8 minute lesson designed to build student understanding of our number system along with the mathematical models and strategies that students can use when they are solving meaningful problems. In the photos below one can see two examples mini-lessons

Mo string              Burrows

The photo on the left shows one of our grade 4 teachers showing the whole class some of the different models, or tools, students can use to solve and prove the answer to a 3 digit from 3 digit subtraction problem and stressing with the students the importance of using a model and strategy that they understand. In the photo on the right, Our grade 1/2 teacher is guiding a small group students to use diagrams to keep track of the quantities of numbers they are using in a 1 digit from 1 digit subtraction problem. Notable is the use of an erasable whiteboard (sorry, no work sheets here) and the use of talk; teacher to student as well as student to student, as the anchors of the mini-lesson.

In most cases, the biggest problems are not solved with grand, sweeping efforts but through the steady application of effort over time. We are seeing the impact of mini-lessons as it is changing the way our students think, reason and prove in mathematics and, more importantly, the way they feel about mathematics. By breaking the complexities of mathematics into accessible mini-lessons we are giving our students the both tools and the confidence to try- I applaud the work of our teachers and students for making this decision and appreciate our district math team from providing the structure of the comprehensive math program to guide this work.

  1. Karen Friedman
    November 1, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Brian, how is the work in mathematics in your school changing assessment practice with respect to math?

    • November 1, 2014 at 1:22 pm

      Teachers are seeing the connection between the student needs revealed as they are solving problems and are using these needs to plan their mini-lessons- a clearer idea of assessment for, and as, learning, is developing along with a deeper understanding of how the mini-lesson design itself can be actionable, descriptive feedback if the student is involved.

  2. Rob
    November 1, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Nice to see the open office up and running again. Good place to be, that Park Ave PS.

    • November 1, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      Thanks, my friend 🙂 there is a direct relationship to how often our children have the vehicles and the time I now have to write blog posts!

  3. November 1, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Brian, how is this work impacting assessment practice in mathematics?

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