Tyler Cronin, North Platte, Nebraska, firstname.lastname@example.org
A basic, absolute, fundamental fact of life is that the best events in life should, and do, begin with an ice cream social. This fact was validated at the Academy of Best Practices that I had the privilege of attending in July 2016. Life and math problems are always solved more easily with a little chocolate ice cream by your side. I flew to Seattle wanting to grow and improve my math education skills, but little did I know how much of a vibrant, lasting impact this opportunity would have on my profession in only a week’s time.
Throughout college, my insight into math education was largely shaped by my education professor and mentor, Dr. Lorraine Males. She practiced what she preached in that “Math education needs an overhaul and it begins with us.” Mission accepted.
After graduation and moving to Smalltown, USA, in western Nebraska, I felt as though I was ready to put into practice the beliefs I had come to adopt and begin to change the face of math education. However, moving 300 miles away from your colleagues and mentors had me grappling with a unique sense of isolation and new challenges. After my first year of teaching in this small community, I realized that without adequate support, encouragement, and like-minded collaboration, it is difficult to uphold these uncommon beliefs and to continue to fight the good math fight.
Then I was selected to attend CPM’s Academy of Best Practices 2.0 after my initial teaching year. I was intrigued by this opportunity because in our pre-service classes we used CPM as our main source of instructional materials in our practice lessons. It was so different from how I had learned in school, with its research-based techniques and task-based design. I was excited to see what this seminar had in store, especially once the academy teachers gave us ice cream. They had my attention.
That short week was saturated with topics and ideas that promoted best practices in education for teachers across the country from a variety of teaching assignments. This alone promoted the message that any student anywhere has the ability to learn math, as long as the teacher is willing to try new methods. I attentively sat there like an intellectual sponge, trying to soak up as much as I could.
Armed with fresh ideas and a newfound excitement, the plane ride home was full of planning for the upcoming school year. I think I had a classroom set of Algebra Tiles ordered before I even left Seattle. With these revitalized convictions, I knew I could not teach the same way I had in the past. Our small but mighty cohort was given “permission” to try these new ideas, with the possibility of failure, or, more importantly, with the possibility of incredible success!
Over the next year I had several moments of great instructional success and some occasions where I ended the day saying, “I am not there YET.” Along with the shock I got from ABP, I also saw my students, ranging from all areas of the grade spectrum, accomplishing great pinnacles in their learning, moments not present before with my traditional style of teaching. This was not an overnight transformation, but the kids did notice a difference in instruction and a difference in their learning. I now knew it was not good enough for students to sit, take notes, do a couple example problems, and go home with twenty problems of homework (just the evens). I wanted to use much more discovery style teaching where students got the opportunity to explore and grow their thinking based on prior knowledge and some key questions. It would help comprehension along with greater retention. CPM supported this mission beautifully. At this point I knew I needed to continue to learn, grow, and try new things in myself in order for my classroom to excel. I saw that CPM challenged students in their thinking, especially when asking students more open-ended questions instead of merely asking “What is the answer?” Students began to use tangible pieces to create a mental vision with Algebra Tiles. My classroom shifted from a place where I taught math into a place where my students began to think like mathematicians.
After that year of teaching, I transitioned into a different role in my career. I made the difficult but wonderful move into professional development. In my new role as the Math Instruction Specialist, I have been able to not only use my invaluable experience with students, but also teach teachers how to change math education for the better. I have become a proponent of altering our current teaching techniques, and for continuing to inform about necessary changes. This transition did not happen without bumps in the road. It was an unknown path that I did not know very much about. I loved working with the students directly, but I knew I could have a bigger impact on math education now. I had several fears wondering if I was going to be good enough to teach other teachers (some that have been teaching longer than I have been alive). However, I always rested on the fact that the things I taught and promoted to these teachers were research-based best practices. I might not have had a ton of years of experience under my belt, but what I did have was a willingness and drive to learn and search for more effective methods. It took some time and effort, but I found them, and continue to use them in several math specialty workshops throughout the year.
One of the things that I talk about quite frequently with math teachers is lesson design. While in Seattle, Mark Coté showed a lesson called “Bubble Pi with a Scoop of Desmos” that he built. Just the name gets your attention. This lesson invited students to explore and bring out observations in a unique way. This is a great example of a major shift in my thinking and planning: allow students to explore, wonder and have them ask good questions, and then embed great content within that exploration. Who knew that something as simple as blowing bubbles and measuring the circumference in order to discover pi could be so engaging? It was a whole new way of looking at lesson design and task-based lessons. I used it in my own classroom, and more recently I used it with a group of elementary and high school math teachers to promote this shift in their instruction (and to have some fun).
As our cohort was leaving Seattle to bring improved instruction and understanding to students across the country, we were told the main goal of CPM is “More math for more people!” In support of that goal, the purpose of ABP was “to better math classrooms 32 at a time.” This was a time to grow and progress in my instructional skills, and now I get to take those experiences all across Nebraska school districts. I am grateful for all I have learned and been able to implement, and am thrilled to play my small role in helping CPM achieve their goal to bring about better math education. 1 gallon of ice cream + 1 inspired group of teachers = success every time.