A+ has partnered with KIPP Spirit Academy, a middle school in southeast Houston (Sunnyside/South Acres area), since 2012.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with members of the math faculty and administration about the impact of the partnership on student learning.
HOUSTON A+ CHALLENGE: Tell me about your history with A+.
SHELBY POWERS, TEACHER, 8TH GRADE ALGEBRA: I was a science teacher and decided I wanted to get math certification – mostly because I was seeing so many issues with math in my science class. Our school leader let me try it, sink or swim. Fortunately, my first year teaching math was also my first year getting an A+ coach. Not knowing what math instruction looks like, I was just going on how I learned math, which I think a lot of people do. Now we have so much more information about how kids learn better. We know that giving them the steps and making them practice, practice, practice, isn’t the best way to teach math. My coach opened me up to the idea of giving them a context, letting them work through, come up with their own problem solving strategies, and letting them talk about those strategies. A+ asks kids to talk into math – it’s not “are they going to be able to answer this multiple choice question?” it’s “do they really understand what they’re talking about?” It’s been really powerful for my kids, developing their abilities, and the way they work and talk about numbers.
A+: And now you are coaching other teachers in the math department?
SHELBY: I worked with Jen my first year to develop my own teaching skills. Now I’m working with Jen on helping the math department in general. I like the A+ model of sitting down and talking about “what do you think worked and didn’t work?” and “here are five strategies that you could use to help with what you just said you need help on.” It’s not “this is what you need to do.” It’s “what can we work on together?” Alexa, the seventh grade math teacher, came here with Teach for America (like me). She was a first year teacher, not sure what to do. She is learning to put math in context – and the same things I’ve seen in my own classroom, she’s seen across the hall in her classroom. We talk about the strategies we are both teaching, and how what she’s doing in seventh grade will scaffold them for eighth grade. JEN MASCHEK, MATH COACH, HOUSTON A+ CHALLENGE: Alexa looped with her students, teaching them in both sixth and seventh, and Shelby will have them for eighth grade next year. Those students will have had three years with these two teachers using the strategies we work on: talking about math, solving problems in context. It will be the first cohort of students to have used these strategies before they get to Shelby – and Shelby’s students are already outscoring other KIPP classrooms across Houston. We can’t wait to see what happens. SHELBY: Jen’s big on “let’s do the math together,” and then as we work, identifying the places where kids will struggle or get tripped up. Bringing that to the math meeting is something I took from her. In the past, our meetings were very logistics based. Rarely were there opportunities to talk about math strategies kids were using. Helping the department being more intentional about using that time to talk about the math has been a good shift for us.
A+: As a first-year KIPP teacher and Teach for America corps member, you already received coaching and support. What was it like to have an A+ coach in the mix?
SHELBY: KIPP and TFA are primarly concerned with the classroom management, and general instructional support around student achievement. Are they achieving? And if not, they’re great about giving you ways to get kids more invested and motivated. My A+ coach has a specific and intentional math focus. A+ helped me with, “my kids just don’t know what a fraction is, and I have tried to show them in the way that I know, and I don’t know how to make it clearer for them.” I’ve learned a lot about how I think about math that I didn’t know before. As you get to the higher levels in math, it can be harder for coaches to give feedback on instructional strategies. They might not have come from a background of teaching math at that level, and they don’t know what they’re looking for. My A+ coach is an expert in math instruction at all levels, and gives me feedback on my planning and delivery that has been so, so helpful.
A+ Can you tell me about a breakthrough moment?
SHELBY: I was using a model from Jen where kids are learning about substitution, but the context is animals and animal strengths: how many oxen does it take to pull this wagon, how many horses. They’re going through this word problem, and they have an answer and can explain it, but they don’t really see the relevance. So I pulled out a quiz from last Wednesday that they all bombed, and said “let’s look at question five. What you guys were just doing, subbing these oxen for this horse, that’s what we mean when we say 5x=y. ” And they just got it! They all said “OOOoooh.” Because it gave them a less abstract way to think about it. That sound – “OOOoooh!” – that’s my favorite sound in the classroom. When you see kids really understand it. Otherwise it’s “I’m doing the next step because that’s the next step.” JEN: One young woman invented her own strategy to solve the problem. They were talking in groups, and this student was talking about how she had broken down the number and put it together again. Shelby stopped the class. She was like, “You guys need to listen. There is GOLD coming out of her mouth.” That’s really powerful as a coach. Most teachers don’t get many “OOOoooh” moments, the moments when a student is demonstrating their understanding. They haven’t set up things up so that students are talking about math and having these insights. But Shelby hears it all the time.
A+: What impact have you seen on the school more widely?
CHARLES KING, PRINCIPAL: I think the impact has been tremendous. I’ve seen the instructional practice in the classrooms that Jen is working with make huge leaps between August and now [January]. And in the three years that we have been partnering with A+, I’ve seen a shift in the depth of knowledge and student thinking across the board in our classrooms. It’s allowed us to have a solid bunch of kids in a pre-algebra class in the 7th grade. I’ve notice that from working with A+. TIFFANY CORTAU, ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL/MATH LEAD: This is my first year at KIPP Spirit, but Jen started coaching Shelby two years ago. Right now Jen works most closely with our sixth grade teacher, who is new to teaching and new to teaching math. Jen also observes the whole department and meets with them a couple of times a month. Even the fifth grade math teacher – some of what Jen is doing is higher than her students’ level, but it shows her where the kids will need to go. I meet with Jen specifically about 5th and 6th. We meet to talk about what we’re seeing, what’s working and not working, so we have a common message. It has been so important to have Jen’s support because of the change in TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state’s math standards for each grade level]. There were new standards and standards that changed grade level. Teachers weren’t familiar. Jen really gets into the math with them and gives them strategies at that high level of rigor. We’re noticing a large impact on student achievement. Jen has been amazing. She’s here often. She takes time to sit with teachers, plan, and help them feel set up for success, especially if they’re not familiar with the content. She provides a lot of strategies. That’s really key, because a lot of times math teachers think they know how they want to teach it, but they might not know the math; or if they usually teach it one way, she’ll show them another way that’s at a higher level of rigor. When they’re meeting and planning, they’re actually doing the math. The teachers really love when she’s in the building.
Houston A+ Challenge provides on-site coaching to teachers through our Consulting & Professional Development work.
Learn more about customized professional development for your campus – as well as open-enrollment workshops and leadership academies – at our Consulting page.