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Focus on Teachers: Christa Lemily, Teaching and Learning with the Math Design Collaborative

December 19, 2013

I’ve written about the Math Design Collaborative in previous posts.  But, for those of you new to Impatient Optimists, the Math Design Collaborative (MDC) began more than three years ago to engage math teachers in high quality instructional and assessment tools that would help them implement the new Common Core State Standards in their classrooms.

Led by math consultants associated with the Shell Centre for Mathematical Education, the Collaborative first engaged groups of teachers in rethinking math instruction and in the design of the new tools.  MDC grew to include pilot initiatives and is now at wide-scale implementation with math teachers in 24 states.   

Research for Action has been assessing the impact of the Math Design Collaborative.  Their study released this fall reveals a great deal about how to effectively engage and support teachers.  We are pleased to share many of their positive findings—and a few lessons learned—with you.

Critical to launching MDC was the thoughtful participation of the “early adopters”—those teachers who were the first to raise their hands and step out of their comfort zone to think about and teach math differently.

Christa Lemily is one of those teachers. 

A math teacher in Warren County, Kentucky, Christa agreed to participate in MDC because, in her words, she “wanted to be a better teacher.”  As Christa explains, “I had taught 9th graders in the Freshman Academy for two years and then moved up to 10th and 11th grade math so I had many of those same students again.  I felt guilty about their math weaknesses.  I was looking for strategies that would help my students to engage and learn.”

With colleagues from her district, Christa worked closely with MDC leads to develop lessons and activities that were challenging and engaging for students and not just about rote learning.  Their work was structured around five principles:

  • Clarifying and sharing learning intentions and criteria for success;
  • Engineering effective discussion, questions, activities and tasks that elicit evidence of learning;
  • Activating students as owners of their learning;
  • Activating students as instructional resources for each other; and
  • Providing feedback that moves students forward.

“In the early days of MDC, we used these five strategies to develop vignettes and challenge problems for students,” Christa notes.  “When I first gave the problems to my classes, the kids stared at me because they didn’t know how to begin.  They were not used to real problem solving.”

“I let the students work collaboratively and bounce ideas off each other.  Because some students are not auditory learners, I scripted the student discussions so that the visual learners could read what others were saying,” Christa continues.  “Through their conversations, the kids started to realize that there was more than one way to solve the problems.  Some ways might be more efficient than others but it was so freeing for students to be able to use different strategies to get correct answers.”

During Christa’s third year with MDC, they released the Formative Assessment Lessons (FALs) that include designed challenges for students and guides for teachers.  Christa was now teaching middle school in her district and began to integrate the FALs into her curriculum.  While it took her some time to adjust to the new materials, she uses an MDC FALs in every unit now.

Christa notes a few unexpected shifts in her approach to MDC over the past few years:  “I first thought of MDC as a ‘hands-off’ approach.  But, it isn’t.  You actually need to be very hands-on—moving around the room and interacting with each group of students to see what they are doing and thinking.  You quickly pick up on who knows what to do and who needs more individual assistance.  Some students don’t want or need me to guide them.  Those that do are able to ask me questions when they couldn’t before.  It’s really differentiated instruction within the same lesson.  Students can work at different paces and in different ways.  And, they have plenty of opportunities to practice what they learn.”

Christa is now helping other colleagues in her district grapple with and implement this new approach. Serving as part of the leadership team for MDC in Warren County, Christa has led professional development during summer intensives and throughout the school year.  

“We [veteran MDC teachers] stepped into a leadership role when our district curriculum coordinator retired. We knew we needed to be involved in leading MDC or it would never spread beyond us,” said Christa, describing the history of MDC implementation district-wide.  “We wanted the rest of our math teachers to receive the same types of supports we did. At end of day, it was actually a great thing that we were forced as teachers to problem solve and lead MDC.  It made teachers owners of our own learning.”

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