SVCF grant helps Morgan Hill students discover a love of math

Veteran teacher Dawn Petty has built a fine career by standard measures, but there have been times she felt her traditional teaching methods were only reaching about a third of her math students at Barrett Elementary School in Morgan Hill, California. Until she began using new methods of teaching, she felt some students were left without a grasp of the math concepts. Some were ready for more but “checked out” of participating. At worst, members of the struggling group developed a mindset that they could not do math.

Students Loving Math“When I would get the test results back, when I was teaching the old methods, they were very disheartening,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “And when I go home at night now, I'm extremely happy and proud. Because look at what they did today. Look at the amazing creativity. And so the personal satisfaction is everything. I mean, it would keep me going for years, where I might have quit.”

What a difference a year — and a radically different way of teaching — can make. Perhaps one day soon, Petty’s sense of satisfaction will be common among this region’s teachers.

That’s the hope of SVCF, which is funding a multiyear program at the Morgan Hill Unified School District to expand training in this new way of math instruction. SVCF funded the program to improve matters for Petty, teachers like her and, most importantly, their students.  

“Math proficient students these days must make sense of mathematical problems, and persevere in solving them,” said Valerie Cuevas, Senior Program Officer for Education at SVCF. “Barrett Elementary’s focus on literacy integration and student-led collaboration creates opportunity for kids to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others, an additional set of skills needed to succeed in the Common Core.”

Building Common Core

California and many other states require all public schools to teach to a set of national standards called Common Core. The math and language arts standards, unveiled in 2009, define what students should know and be able to do at the end of each academic year. Common Core challenges students with rigorous content, which they tackle with higher-order thinking skills. Rote memorization is out; real-world problem solving and deep understanding are in.

Students with Common Core MathCommon Core’s goal of deep learning dovetails nicely with the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, whose research led her to conclude that a “growth mindset” is critical to student success and achievement. She led the development of a teaching method that leads to a growth mindset -- one in which hard work and dedication are emphasized, rather than any supposedly innate traits such as intelligence or “talent.”

Secret sauce

How does the development of this growth mindset happen?

Well, let’s take a peek at Petty and her students in action. The desks are arranged in small, self-selected groups of two to four. Petty asks the groups to work on how to solve a real-world problem, not an abstract equation. They attack it like a pee-wee version of a NASA task force holding a facilitated brainstorming session to tackle some thorny engineering challenge.

In this case, the students’ problem is estimating the size of a crowd in a photo. Some photos are more challenging than others, and the groups choose which one to work on based on what they think they could handle.

The kids write all ideas down without judgment, no matter how wacky an approach may seem. Getting weird and creative is encouraged. Negative comments are not.

Petty walks from group to group, asking clarifying questions to understand the approaches under discussion.

Finally, the students make their estimates, noting which approaches they considered before settling on one. Then the groups share their ideas with the class, maintaining the spirit of open-minded inquiry. Like corn kernels popping, the kids’ ideas spark quickly at first and then slow down.

Finally the whole class turns to evaluating the ideas. They apply their collective wisdom to determine the most promising approaches, and everyone has a chance to contribute. Petty praises their thinking, effort and sharing, not “right answers.”

It’s likely that all the students see a way of looking at the problem that they never would have conceived on their own.

Training for teachers

Barrett Elementary Principal Mary Alice Callahan was convinced that the Common Core standards were indeed helping improve her school’s subpar performance on the state’s standardized test. But in her mind, progress was too slow, especially in math.

So when she heard about Professor Jo Boeler’s work at Stanford, which applies Dweck’s growth mindset theories to math instruction, she knew she had to train her teachers in those methods.

Teaching Common Core MathWith her help, six teachers at her school won a grant from the Intrepid Foundation to study the method at Stanford, but Callahan didn’t want to stop there. She applied to SVCF for a grant to expand the training throughout MHUSD, using her school as a demonstration site.

SVCF’s $200,000 grant is helping to make that happen — and will hopefully move the needle on the district’s test scores. More importantly, it’s helping students discover a love of mathematics.

Let’s take another look at Dawn Petty’s classroom: Even near the end of the school year, the fifth graders appear to be fully engaged when they walk into class. No one’s clowning around as if they’re on the downhill glide to summer vacation. The focus remains constant for the entire period.

Wait, are these kids enjoying math class? When it’s taught like a language, Callahan says, they absolutely do. When they sense that they can master number fluency, they realize they can use it to tackle all sorts of real-world problems, she explains.

“We're seeing much deeper understanding,” she says. “For a lot of kids, math was a subject done to them. Now math is a subject that they engage with and explore and wonder about. A subject they enjoy. They’re also learning that they can learn from each other.”

Learn more about SVCF’s grantmaking work and find a complete list of foundation grantees here.