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Meet some of the state's top math and science teachers

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

This year’s state finalists for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching were asked what makes their teaching unique and successful in the classroom. Here are their answers.

Tamara Bane, a former third-grade math teacher who is now a high school instructional coach at Winterset Senior High School in the Winterset Community School District

What is your personal approach to teaching?
First and foremost, it is important to make a personal connection with each and every child.  It is crucial for my students to know each one of them is important, and I am dedicated to their personal and educational success.  I believe the quickest, most efficient way to guide student learning is to involve the students in the goal-setting and planning.  When my students set goals based on what they currently know, I notice their motivation and intention of learning greatly increases.  They see purpose in what I am working so hard to teach them, and each bite of success they take as they meet those goals makes them more determined to learn even more.  It is important to distinguish what students need to know, what they already know, and have methods in place to teach those that need extensions and to reach those that struggle.

Historically, many students have been math and/or science averse. How do you counter that in your teaching?
A statistic was shared with me that students go into first grade knowing more about math than when they exit first grade. That was the day that I knew I was not successfully "teaching" my students to think about numbers.  Instead, I was teaching them to think the way I think even if that didn't work for them.  Students have to be allowed to access math in a purposeful, meaningful and accepting way.  Some of my most exciting moments in the math classroom are when a student expresses a connection they made just by being able to explore numbers or they feel comfortable enough to say, "I didn't get that answer, may I share mine with the class so we can find my mistake?"  Conversation and accountable talk about the discovery of math by being asked questions that lead to productive struggle turns students on to the excitement of math.


Janna Bjork, a former third-grade math teacher who now teaches kindergarten English as a second language at Perry Elementary School in the Perry Community School District

What is your personal approach to teaching?
I determine what students need to learn followed by deciding how to help students develop an understanding of the identified concept in a way that is meaningful and engaging.  I use assessment to determine where students are on the trajectory toward achieving a particular learning goal.  Then I use this information to match instruction to students’ needs.  As I monitor students’ progress, I adjust the type and amount of support based on their performance.  I help students develop a sense of ownership in their math learning by involving them in self-evaluating their progress toward learning goals.  I strive to help all students reach or exceed grade-level learning goals.
I pose questions to encourage students to discuss their representations, strategies, and explanations.  Creating a classroom environment that values the thinking of each student leads students to develop their own ideas and respond to classmates’ ideas.  

Historically, many students have been math and/or science averse. How do you counter that in your teaching?
I use students’ interests, ideas, and questions as the basis for designing problem-based experiences.  I differentiate to meet students’ needs during problem-based experiences to ensure access to rigorous math content for all students.  Each problem is structured to guide students to the key understandings they need to develop.  Facilitating learning through problem-based experiences engages students, and investigation leads to students discovering ideas.  Students gain a deeper understanding of concepts by engaging in this work.  Applying mathematics to real-world contexts through problem-based experiences also enables students to see a purpose for their learning.  When students do work resembling real-world tasks, they are motivated to persevere to reach solutions.  
I emphasize the processes and reasoning critical for success in mathematics.  As students realize there is often more than one way to solve a problem and more than one solution, they become eager to share their thinking and start developing confidence.


Tammie Cass, a fifth and sixth grade math teacher at Nodaway Valley Middle School in the Nodaway Valley Community School District

What is your personal approach to teaching?
My classroom is not a traditional mathematics classroom.  My students are encouraged to be thinkers, communicators, peer coaches, and learners of mathematics.  We follow the Iowa Core and practice the 8 Mathematical Practices in the Core on a daily basis.  Students have a copy of the Iowa Core and we use the standards to identify what we are learning and then assessing.  Students are encouraged to look deeper into the problems so that they understand the mathematical concepts behind the numbers.  When developing their own strategies for solving a problem, the students’ learning of the concept or idea is much deeper than if I just tell them how to use an algorithm. We work with many different models and diagrams to help us understand the concepts being taught.  Students learn to communicate about their mathematics by explaining their work and sharing ideas and strategies with each other and with the whole class.

Historically, many students have been math and/or science averse. How do you counter that in your teaching?
Many students enter the classroom scared, uncomfortable, and lacking confidence.  Establishing solid ground rules and cooperative learning skills helps us explore mathematical concepts.  Students develop their own strategies to solve problems.  This builds their confidence. Many times, I have students share with another student or with me before they share with the classroom so that they know their answer and explanation are correct.  Then I encourage them to share their thoughts.  This allows students a chance to clarify their own learning and feel stronger about sharing their ideas.  There are many incidents where I purposely make a mistake or misconception to see if the students can identify the problem.  We talk about the misconception and learn from the mistake.  My students know that I am always available to help them understand their math.  If my students fail, then I have failed as their teacher.  I am here to help students learn and succeed.

Ann Johnson, second-grade math teacher at Sageville Elementary in the Dubuque Community School District

What is your personal approach to teaching?
I approach teaching each day by building relationships with students so I can get the best version of them in the classroom.  Building a classroom community includes building character as well as engaging and challenging students to meet high expectations.  Goal-setting plays a large role in my classroom, requiring students to reflect on their own learning and take ownership as they work towards their goals.  In my classroom, students can work toward a common learning target on differentiated paths.  Students often work together communicating their thinking in partners, small-group and large-group discussions.
Historically, many students have been math and/or science averse. How do you counter that in your teaching?
Math has changed a lot over the years I've taught and even more since I was a child.  Our learning targets have stretched far beyond only memorizing basic math facts.  Students learn math skills through hands-on activities, collaborating with other students and making connections to previous learning and the world around them.  My classroom environment celebrates all student learning while challenging students to make connections between strategies to encourage the most efficient and accurate problem-solving skills.  Students move along a continuum as they become more sophisticated mathematical thinkers by making those connections.  Infusing math skills this way builds student confidence in their own math skills and creates more flexible mathematical thinkers.  Purposeful partnering plays an important role as students gain the most knowledge from each other by composing and proving conjectures in mathematics.  Those basic facts become fluent as students learn efficient strategies and use relational thinking.  

Joshua Steenhoek, a fifth-grade science teacher at Jefferson Intermediate School in the Pella Community School District

What is your personal approach to teaching?
I use the Science Writing Heuristic approach to teaching, which gets students to operate in the classroom as a scientist. They do this by posing questions around big ideas, gathering data from their investigations and experiences, developing claims about their results, and supporting their claims with evidence. An essential feature is the emphasis on both written and oral language throughout the negotiation opportunities.  This approach to teaching puts the focus on scientific concepts rather than the memorization of facts. In the classroom, my role is to be a manager of the learning environment rather than a disseminator of knowledge. In doing so, students discuss their thinking, wrestle with inconsistencies, and are more likely to adjust their conceptual frameworks rather than seek an answer the teacher is desiring.

Historically, many students have been math and/or science adverse. How do you counter that in your teaching?
Overcoming the preconceived notion that science is a non-preferred subject is a fantastic challenge. A student’s aversion to science is frequently based on limited experience. Students need to be continually engaged in the science content as scientists. People are social, naturally curious, and passionate about things that matter to them. In my science classroom the questions that students pose around big ideas help drive our investigations and fuel their passion. They see connections between what they know, the observed phenomena, and what other experts say. Throughout this science period, students are working in various groups to uncover, construct, and refine their thinking. The groups develop a dependency on each member of the class, and exclusion isn’t an option. The sense of belonging and seeking answers to their questions develops, at minimum, an appreciation for science.

Molly Sweeney, a multi-age math teacher at the Downtown School in the Des Moines Public Schools

What is your personal approach to teaching?
When thinking about teaching a group of students, I first begin by looking at each individual child and determining what their level of understanding is on a certain topic. I do this by posing engaging tasks and problems and then I become a careful observer, questioner, and listener.  I believe it is vital to have a deep understanding of how the child is thinking about a problem or concept.  Then I am able to develop a plan to strengthen and further develop their level of understanding.  In my classroom, I allow students to engage, discuss and collaborate with one another.  My students become teachers.  I encourage and allow my students to teach others whenever possible.  It is through teaching that an individual can reach deep understanding.

Historically, many students have been math and/or science averse. How do you counter that in your teaching?
In my classroom, we use and talk about the following motto: “It’s okay to not know, but it is not okay to not try.”  I think that motto speaks to how I approach children who are apprehensive towards math and science.  All I need is an open and willing mind from a student.  Once students allow that to happen, then the world is open to them.  Presenting tasks and problems that are real to students and that they see as important in their lives is very motivating.  I work to integrate math and science throughout my day, including through the arts.  When children engage with math and science concepts in this way, they are less hesitant and they are able to begin to develop their meaning of it on a personal level.  It also enables them to recall information because they engage different parts of their bodies.

Jessica Watson, a multi-age teacher at the Downtown School in the Des Moines Public Schools

What is your personal approach to teaching?
My personal approach to teaching is based on the idea that if the instruction is engaging and purposeful, the students will find learning meaningful. I’ve had some fantastic mentors and teammates that have impressed on me the importance of using researched-based quality resources, taking advantage of community events and experts, and using real-world experiences to involve students in the learning process. Additionally, I believe in creating an atmosphere of community learning and inquiry. When students are encouraged to see themselves as an integral part of a larger learning group, they are more willing to take risks, give and receive feedback and be active in the learning process. My goal is to encourage them to wonder about the world around them, make conjectures about ideas we’ve investigated or apply learning to new situations.

Historically, many students have been math and/or science averse. How do you counter that in your teaching?
It’s unfortunate that students in the elementary grades begin to have a negative attitude about math or science. Although this has many causes, I believe that some science, social studies, and math teachers try to use one-size-fits-all materials and scripted units. Teachers need to put forth effort to differentiate instruction and meet students’ needs.  Math instruction needs to build on prior knowledge so students can make connections and extend their learning. Science and social studies instruction should allow for student choice, so children feel a vested interest in the information they are learning.

I believe in using real-life experiences in both science and math. When students are faced with real problems that need solutions, they are much more motivated to ask questions, research to find answers and make conclusions about their results. It’s so rewarding to see all students participating in problem-based tasks, even those with adverse feelings toward science and math.


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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on February 23, 2018 at 8:21pm.