Common Core

Helping struggling students: A view from one math teacher’s classroom

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When Cicely Woodard was growing up in Memphis, math class was fairly straightforward. “My teachers got up there and they lectured and we took notes, and we practiced and then the next day, we came back and did it all over again,” she says. Perhaps because of that rote instruction, Woodard says she wasn’t a great math student.

“It was very challenging for me,” she says. “I studied a lot.”

Ultimately, Woodard did well enough to major in mathematical sciences at the University of Memphis before earning a master’s degree in education from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Now an eighth-grade math teacher at Rose Park Magnet Middle School in Nashville, Woodard has special empathy for students who struggle with math. “There are some kids [who] math comes easy to and I tell my kids that for me, it didn’t. I had to do my homework and really think about it.”

That’s why Woodard doesn’t agree with critics who say the Common Core is too hard for struggling students. In fact, she thinks the Common Core’s focus on fewer concepts, in greater depth, may even help them. “The goal is for me not to talk a lot, but to ask a lot of questions so I am advancing their thinking,” she says.

Rose Park students who didn’t do well on the state’s standardized tests get an extra math class every day called Focus Seminar. They were Woodard’s first students on a recent weekday to enter her third-floor classroom quietly and settle down immediately to work at groups of tables arranged around the room.

For the next 50 minutes, Woodard turned class into more of a conversation than a lecture. At one point, she gave her students a problem about two cousins who collected stamps. Before the calculations started, she asked her students if they collect anything.

At the end of the day, students use Post-it notes to let Woodard know how well they understood the lesson. (Photo: Barbara Kantrowitz)

“Stadium cups,” one student answered.

“Model sports cars,” said another.

“Money,” said a boy who got Woodard and the rest of the class laughing.

Woodard read the problem aloud, and then asked how long it would take both cousins to have the same number of stamps. The students had to provide more than one approach for arriving at the answer.

She gave them a minute for “private think time” before they broke into groups, using small handheld whiteboards for their computations. There was a low murmur in the room, barely audible above the sound of the air-conditioners.

Woodard walked from group to group, checking on progress and gently guiding students. They explained their strategies for solving the problem, and sometimes suggested other ways to look at the question. Before long, the whiteboards were full of calculations.

When the time for group work was up, Woodard asked one girl to present her solution, a table. Woodard and the class were impressed. “I think she deserves some fireworks,” Woodard said.

The other students waved their hands in the air and called out, “Whoosh!” and “Boom!”

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Then another student got up and showed how he had solved the same problem using an equation. A third student demonstrated how he’d begun working on a new problem: how many stamps each cousin would have by the end of the year.

Woodard believes the Common Core approach will be effective for students at all levels; for now, there are no data to back up that belief since students won’t take tests aligned to the new standards until next school year.

“It was effective the first day,” Woodard says. “They were excited, and they were arguing. They were upset with me because I wouldn’t tell them who was right and who was wrong.”

At the end of the class, she often distributes Post-It notes and asks students to write something that fits into one of three categories: “What did you learn? What questions do you have? What stopped your learning today?”

Students stick their answers on a display at the door as they leave the room—the first category on green paper, the second on yellow and the third on red.

Woodard’s goal? She wants all of her students to love math as much as she does.

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Barbara Kantrowitz

Barbara Kantrowitz, a senior editor, is an award-winning magazine editor and writer. She worked at Newsweek for nearly 25 years in the magazine’s society section,… See Archive

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