Opinion

This Kentucky math teacher meets the digital challenge by working ‘smarter not harder’

Taking the long view with elementary students

When I was a kindergarten teacher, my colleague and I tried to create a digital lesson to teach students how to count to 10.

We knew we wanted to connect the lesson to something that most young students would have already experienced, regardless of their location, and we decided to use counting in a game – hide-and-go-seek.

When I tested this out in my classroom, the kids certainly had fun, learned how to say the numbers in order, and understood when they were allowed to “go seek” – but many were missing the broader concept of adding a quantity as they counted.

Related: Not all towns are created equal, digitally

As a former bad math student, I understand that just memorizing the procedure isn’t enough. When I first learned long division, for example, it was by copying the process from the board into my math journal. After I failed multiple tests, and grew increasingly confused, my mom finally realized that I had copied the method down wrong. With no understanding of the concept, I couldn’t see the flaws in my process.

Finding ways to help students understand is my daily challenge – but breaking down how to best help each student learn math concepts can be difficult. I know the importance of reaching each student where they are – but how do you do this in a full class when each student’s need is different?

Related: Making an environment where teachers can create bespoke lessons

To tackle this somewhat daunting task, I started to consider using a digital curriculum. I knew that it had the potential to help, but at first I wasn’t sure where to begin. I used to spend hours searching for high-quality materials that would meet the needs of each student.

In 2015, I joined the LearnZillion Dream Team as a coach, and dove into digital curriculum by helping to create it myself. In collaborating with other educators, I saw examples of how bringing in the online component allows students to see things conceptually rather than procedurally.

This year, as a math facilitator to the Syracuse City School District in New York through LearnZillion, I help to show and train others in how to use digital resources. In my own classroom, they have helped me easily support each student in an interactive way, and I love helping others to do the same.

A few tips I tend to highlight:

Digital learning doesn’t have to mean that a student sits at a computer – the real value is in supplementing these intuitive lessons through hands-on challenges. For example, I like to have students partner up and count cubes to show greater than, less than and equal to. This way, not only are students able to apply their learning in a direct way – but also I can physically see what students understand without them ever touching a pencil.

Related: School of Me: Letting students study what they want, when they want is the latest education trend

Digital curriculum has also helped me empower students to flip the script. Rather than showing students a problem and explaining how to solve it before letting them practice on their own, now I give students the power to try to figure it out on their own first. Both my students and I have abandoned the idea that there is just one way to solve a problem. Instead, my students work through it themselves and try to show me what they think the solution is, and they often catch many of their own errors.

By expanding my approach as well as the teachers with whom I work, I’ve found that I’m thinking more deeply, constantly improving and learning the power of even the smallest tweak to my lessons. For example, rather than telling young students that zero is the absolute lowest number, I try to be mindful of what they will learn in the future. Having that long-term view about math with these young students will, hopefully, support learning down the road.

Being cognizant of mathematical misconceptions also helps guide me towards a long-term view of how my students will one day use what I teach them. This can be difficult, because 40 percent of the jobs that this year’s kindergarten class will pursue as adults do not exist right now. What can we, as teachers, do to help them succeed?

First, don’t be afraid to fail. That was one of my concerns at the start: what if I teach the material wrong? What if I go to teach a lesson and the internet goes out? At the end of the day, these fears of failure won’t help you succeed – in fact, they may actively keep you from it.

Second, remember that digital curriculum is a tool to work smarter, not harder. Quality resources are available to teachers in ways that they have never been before. And opportunities to build your own supportive community are there, if you want them.

Meka Wilhoit is an educator in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Add Comment
comments powered by Disqus

Meka Wilhoit

Meka Wilhoit is an educator in Frankfort, Kentucky. See Archive