bobMuch debate in the field of mathematics instruction revolves around questions like these:

Do we teach for conceptual understanding or procedural fluency? Do we opt for direct instruction followed by application, or do we facilitate as students explore and make connections for themselves?  Is learning multiplication facts an appropriate use of class time?

Literacy instruction has been the subject of a similar debate.  While there are still people who advocate strongly for either a phonics-based approach or a whole-language approach, most progressive educators agree that a balanced approach that combines the best of both phonics and whole language is most effective. I believe that the same is true in math instruction, and that looking to literacy for a model can be helpful.

In reading, the ultimate goal is comprehension–understanding what we read. In math, it’s problem solving–using numbers to represent real world situations. In both cases, students need other skills and proficiencies to achieve these goals.

Learning phonics, or the sounds the letters make both on their own and when combined, is critical for reading success. Similarly, in math, the building blocks are the number system and basic fact fluency. Just like it’s difficult to make sense out of a passage of text if one does not know that “c” and “h” together make “ch” like in “chip,” understanding mathematical situations becomes extremely challenging when one does not know that 9 x 5 = 45.

Understanding and remembering what you’ve read is difficult if you have to stop and sound out every word. This is why teachers model and students practice reading–so it becomes smoother and more natural. In math, using inefficient strategies or relying on clever mnemonic devices to complete calculations diverts attention and cognitive energy and, in many cases, can cause students to lose track of the bigger problem they are trying to solve. That is why building both conceptual understanding and procedural fluency, sometimes through practice and repetition, is important.

In a balanced literacy classroom, instruction focuses on both the nuts and bolts of reading and writing, as well as understanding the big picture. Students are expected to know the alphabet and the sounds letter make. Teachers model smooth expressive reading and help students develop strategies to comprehend what they read. Students practice reading in many different contexts every day. Thinking about mathematics instruction the same way can help students master the skills they need to meet the ultimate goal of using math to make sense of the world around them. Students should learn the number system and their basic math facts. They should develop deep conceptual understanding and practice efficient strategies for calculation. Teachers should model and explain strategies for making sense of problem situations and students should be engaged in problem solving in many different ways every day.

~Bob Dietzen, Math Specialist, City Neighbors Hamilton~

monica pic

In my experience in elementary classrooms over the years, (including in our City Neighbors early grades classrooms and now in a mentoring capacity) I find that about this time of year, the question tends to come up:  “What part should effort and hard work play in children’s schooling?”

Teachers in the classroom are readily able to see that there are two parts to the process of learning something new:  whether the child has the skills needed and whether the child has the independent work habits to apply those skills.  For young readers, there is no substitute for their own independent practice at reading.  Skills are introduced at certain times; there is also plenty of time for practice to apply those skills. Or consider middle schoolers, working to systematically research their year-long project.  A certain amount of industrious trying will lead them to be successful.

At times this can be a bit confusing for families.   Sometimes parents’ reasoning can be:  “We chose City Neighbors so that our child would enjoy school and not find it tiresome, as our own schooling sometimes was.” So when the first rush of back to school excitement is naturally lessened, when some reluctance for working at skills asked of children can come up, parents may become concerned.  “But I want my child to love to come to school…”

Yes, but:  Even if adults love their profession, will they love every minute and aspect of it?  (paperwork or repetitive parts of even a well-loved job?)  For kids’ job as students, there will be some practice and “repetition for mastery” at school, necessary to grow skills.

Research in the past few years about learning shows that those who feel industrious mental effort actually makes a person smarter are more likely to take on difficult tasks, doing well at them.  It is apparent to teachers that how successful children are with mastering skills is in large part related to how well and how long they are able to persevere  working independently—even when it becomes difficult or “hits a snag.”  Children’s  ability to stick with it does not appear to be necessarily related to how “bright” the children are but rather to how much they see themselves as independent people who can work at something until the job is done.

So as parents it helps to praise our kids’ work not with a “You’re so smart” as often as with a “Look how hard you worked at that.” This message is that their effort matters, and will bring a result which is in their control. (And we can encourage “sticking-with-it” skills at home too, with even simple chores like making the bed neatly or organizing or doing a load of laundry.)

My impression from City Neighbors classrooms is this: they do love to come to school! There is a lot of the pure joy of discovery in those City Neighbors classrooms, but also satisfaction of a tough job, tried and completed well!

~Monica O’Gara, Early Childhood Specialist, City Neighbors Charter School~

Sean TeachingWhen I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? In a series of detailed drawings and simple language, Scarry illustrates a variety of jobs around Busytown.  He invites readers to be workers and reveals how different people are connected through the work they do.

I still think of that book often. Some of it may be outdated, but that essential question sticks in my mind. “What do people do all day?”

As a high school teacher, I engage with students continually, managing and monitoring learning for around 100 young people with unique interests and individual needs.  Then, in the single hour I have without students, I rush to plan lessons, create resources, evaluate students’ work, reflect on our progress and needs, design individualized accommodations and modifications, check emails, make copies, contact families, consult case managers, attend meetings, go to the bathroom, and, if I’m lucky, catch my breath. Because that hour is never enough, I work through lunch, stay late, and come in early.

Asking myself, “What do I do all day?” helps me stay efficient and motivated. What do I do all day? I work with young people and facilitate learning. What a great way to spend my time!

Now, let’s ask, “What do students do all day?” When I was a new teacher, I had a mentor who would comment on my lesson plans, “I can see what you’re doing, but what are students doing?” To find success in the classroom, I had to stop thinking only in terms of what I would do, what instructions I would give, or what questions I would ask. I had to start thinking in terms of what my students would do, what instructions they would need, and what questions they would ask. In short, I had to start asking, “What should students do all day?”

At City Neighbors High School, a typical student attends five different classes on five different subjects, takes a lunch break, and then joins her pod (an extended advisory) for an hour. Asking myself to consider what students do helps me empathize with teenagers who spend the day watching their “to-do” lists grow with limited time to organize, prioritize, or catch their breath.

Imagine working hard all day, always being told what to do, and never getting a break. At City Neighbors, we’re fortunate to have time to address as many needs as we can in our extended advisory pods. In our efforts to make every minute count, we need to remember the big picture, to consider what people do–and what they need to do–all day.

“What do people do all day?” It’s not just a question for Busytown. It’s a question for all of us. It’s a question that, while deceptively simple, is absolutely essential. At least, it always has been for me.

~Sean Martin, Teacher, City Neighbors High School~



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