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Learning to Love Numbers

“Power block” classes and interactive handheld calculators give at-risk students a reason to embrace mathematics.

Integral to the plan was the implementation of Texas Instruments (TI) Navigator graphing calculator system in each classroom.
Integral to the plan was the implementation of Texas Instruments (TI) Navigator graphing calculator system in each classroom.

For a persistent core of seventh and eighth graders in the Richardson (TX) Independent School District (RISD), a 35,000-student system about 15 miles northeast of Dallas, the mathematics portion of state math tests was troublesome. Although the district met the state standard for most students, the seemingly out-of-reach standards for this set of middle school students highlighted a painful ethnic achievement gap.

By 2004, “our school was looking for any kind of intervention for math,” says Kristen San Juan, a math teacher. “We are always trying to be a step ahead, and we needed a fresh approach.”

Dallas-based Texas Instruments offered to help and joined with a committee of RISD administrators and researchers to study the problem. The result was an eight-point plan to transform math instruction for at-risk students, with a 2005 pilot program to launch at Lake Highlands Junior High. That fall, the program began with eight teachers, including five who were brand new, and 125 seventh and eighth graders, all of whom had failed the state math test repeatedly.

Math Power Blocks
The primary component of the plan was the creation of 100-minute “power blocks”—double math periods to provide extra time for instruction, hands-on practice, and a jump start on homework. The 100-minute structure would be further strengthened by an accelerated curriculum, increased teacher training and administrative support, and parental involvement.
Also integral to the plan was the implementation of Texas Instruments’ (TI) Navigator graphing calculator system in each classroom, which enables teachers to transmit math problems to students’ TI-73 graphing calculators simultaneously. It shows the teacher the current activity on each student’s screen and tallies and graphs the class’s collective responses to each problem.

“You can see the math happening in real time instead of waiting for tests and quizzes,” San Juan says. “A student can submit an answer for discussion and see how his answer compares with others on the screen, all in complete anonymity. It’s safe for a student to risk being wrong.”

“Kids need interaction,” affirms Paula Haney, director of seventh- and eighth-grade math. “With Game Boys and Nintendos, that’s how their brains are wired. They are more excited about getting to class when they are working with technology and having questions popped out to them on their calculators.”

Pilot Planning
While the calculators were a key to engaging students, Lake Highlands math teachers knew that breaking through entrenched math fears would require more than just a cool new tech toy. That’s why there was so much advance planning to alter the curriculum, write new lesson plans, and choose the right teachers and students for the pilot, San Juan says.

“It took a lot of planning just to figure out who was doing what, selecting the students, and getting it all into place,” says Bill Gammons, the executive director of curriculum development and instruction who was the district’s math director. “It takes a great deal of time to think through and plan.”

Ongoing training sessions throughout the year give teachers an opportunity to help one another by sharing experiences and solutions and also keeping everyone up-to-date, Gammons adds.

“We really increased the level of expectation from our teachers,” says San Juan. “It wasn’t just notes, lessons, and ‘Here’s your homework.’ They had to learn how to research and create lessons for the Navigator. It took a lot of training.”

Attitude Adjustments
The pilot succeeded in boosting student grades, attitudes, and standardized test scores so well that in 2006 the district expanded the program to 1,300 students in four additional junior highs and some freshman classes. By the fall of 2007, the district will add the remaining three junior highs and 200 more students, including some ninth-grade classes.

Seeing the results of RISD’s comprehensive program and 100-minute classes, Texas Instruments is assisting three other districts in Texas, Florida, and Ohio to implement similar programs.

“We are very encouraged by the results,” says RISD Deputy Superintendent Patti Kieker. “Kids who came through the pilot last year who thought they couldn’t do it are singing a different song this year. This foundation will help them throughout their careers.”“Nobody expected so many positive stories,” San Juan adds. “When kids can talk about math using the right vocabulary, that’s success. And when the kids saw the results themselves, they realized they could do this—and they started to blossom.”

Standardized test results the following spring were also positive: 28 percent of the seventh graders and 75 percent of the eighth graders in the intervention group passed the state test. Nearly all of them showed significant improvement, and a number of them missed a passing grade by only a few questions, San Juan says. Scores were lower in the seventh grade partly because it was a larger group but also because seventh grade had all the first-year teachers,
an issue that has since been addressed with extra support, she adds.

The kids’ success is also reflected in better grades in other subjects, higher self-esteem, more confidence, and an eagerness to help other students. The students are even more prompt in arriving to class. “They are much more engaged in what they are doing,” adds seventh-grade teacher Georgeanna Jones. “They don’t mess around in the hallway because they don’t want to lose points by logging on late. And they want to get to the calculator part of the lesson.”Falling in Love With MathIn a typical class, the teacher begins with a brief warm-up activity, transmitting a problem or series of questions that the students answer individually on their calculators. The results tell the teacher quickly whether the class is ready to move to the next topic. Later in the lesson, the teacher may proceed with a group activity, with students working in clusters of three or four, analyzing and discussing a question and figuring out the steps to the solution, says Haney. Then they debate the possible answers as a class.

“The teachers do a great job of promoting excitement,” Haney observes.The intervention also has boosted students’ self-esteem, with even shy ones volunteering to help a classmate or demonstrate the system. And last year’s eighth-grade graduates have become leaders in the ninth-grade math classes because they already know how it works.

The intervention program also encourages closer communication with parents. Jones talks to parents frequently during the week, enlisting their help when needed and updating them with quiz grades every Friday.

Jones has received positive feedback from parents, including a mother who “couldn’t thank Jones enough” for channeling her daughter’s energies in a positive direction and giving her the encouragement to pass her six-week benchmarks. Another of Jones’s math stars was a seventh-grade ESL student from Africa who had previously goofed around a lot but has now jumped to ninth-grade pre-algebra, where he is helping others and doing well. He fell in love with math, she says. @

About the Author

Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.

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