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6 Steps to Make Math Personal—Tech Makes It Possible, Teachers Make It Happen

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Even after teaching for a decade, Pamela Baack found herself battling the calendar as she tried to keep her students on track.

“We were always on someone else’s pace, not our kids’ pace,” says Baack, who teaches at the Bella Romero Academy of Applied Technology, a K-8 public school in Greeley, Colorado. Most lessons were taught to the entire class, requiring Baack to constantly search for opportunities to help the students who struggled. “It was hard to differentiate, because it was hard to find the time to go back,” she says.

Today, students in Baack’s third-grade classroom work through addition, multiplication, and division activities at their own pace. Some progress through lessons quickly, while others get the opportunities they need to relearn and practice key concepts until they are ready to move forward. Importantly, Baack says, even the students who struggle the most are at grade level. “They’re still doing what every else is doing, but at a different pace,” she says. “They’re exposed to grade-level standards and content and will be able to move up.”

Technology has driven these changes. Bella Romero recently replaced the school’s traditional math curriculum with Zearn Math, which combines online student lessons and activities with in-person small-group instruction. But computers and software weren’t all that was needed to make personalized learning work at the Colorado school. It also required an equally dramatic shift in what Baack and her colleagues do in the classroom on a daily basis.

She’s the first to admit it wasn’t easy to change the way she had been teaching for a decade. Instead of spending most of her time on whole-group instruction, Baack now works with one or two students at a time. She plans different stations activities daily, and tracks in real time how well students are grasping what they’re learning.

“I’m a very structured teacher, and I like structure and processes,” Baack says. “I am not able to do that anymore, because every day I’m changing everything.”

Making these kinds of changes can be a challenge for even the most forward thinking educators. When I visited Bella Romero this spring, however, I was struck by how teachers were able to tap technology in order to help personalize instruction—while still working directly with students and keeping the entire class on track. Here’s what Baack and her fellow teachers are doing right:

1. Flexibility. School leaders outlined in broad strokes how they wanted to use Zearn to differentiate instruction, but empowered teachers to implement the technology in the ways that worked best for them. Baack says that different grade-level teams have developed their own approaches to planning and setting up the learning stations that complement student screen time. “Because it’s such a shift in thinking, you have to work through it yourself,” she says. “We needed the ownership of it to be able to try things.”

2. Blending technology and traditional instruction. Ninety-minute math blocks in Baack’s class are split evenly between Zearn time and small-group instruction and practice, with half of the class online at any one time. Workbooks and other non-technology activities are aligned with online work, which Zearn believes improves knowledge transfer.

3. Commitment. Baack had tried to use personalized learning tools as a supplemental resource in the past, but the technology served largely as an add-on to the existing curriculum. With Zearn as the school’s chosen math curriculum, all student activities—computer, small group, independent—were focused on the same goals. (Zearn is based on the existing EngageNY/ Eureka Math curriculum.)

4. Personalization. Baack says Zearn continuously adapts each student’s activities based on his or her progress. “A lot of kids may not be on multiplication—they’re still working on adding and subtracting,” she says. They have the “opportunity to move through the program at their own pace.” Importantly, high-achieving students also are allowed to progress and move into higher-level work. “In my ten years of teaching, this is the first time I’ve been able to meet the needs of those high kids without the support of the GT [gifted and talented] teacher,” Baack says.

5. Data. Initially, Baack found the amount of data generated by Zearn overwhelming—echoing what we’ve heard from teachers everywhere. Now she and her colleagues tap the program’s progress reports daily to plan small-group instruction and stations for the next lessons. What’s more, Baack gets alerts during class time; when her iPad signals a student has struggled with the same question multiple times, she can intervene right away. Even so, it takes her personal knowledge of each student to know how to intervene. That may mean having a student rewatch a video lesson because she may not have been paying attention, or walking a student through the process until he grasps a key concept.

6. Planning. Grade-level teachers are given time daily to meet, go over data, and prepare for the next lesson—something that becomes critical when planning small-group activities, Baack says. “We’re not planning for 26 kids any more; we’re planning for one or two kids at a time and how we’re going to target them,” she explains.

In the end, Baack says that using technology to personalize learning for her students has also helped her better meet their needs when she teaches without it. “It has helped my teaching a lot because it allows me to be more flexible,” she says. 

This article was sponsored by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.
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