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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Grant helps 4th-graders gain math skills

Danielle Curtis

When Autumn Pinsonneault gets ready for school in the morning, multiplication facts surround her on the bathroom walls and mirrors.

When she goes to sleep at night, the fourth-grader sees more math problems, pasted on the ceiling of her bedroom. ...

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When Autumn Pinsonneault gets ready for school in the morning, multiplication facts surround her on the bathroom walls and mirrors.

When she goes to sleep at night, the fourth-grader sees more math problems, pasted on the ceiling of her bedroom.

“I jumped on my bed and stuck them up there,” she said Wednesday, laughing, in her Charlotte Avenue Elementary School classroom. “I was really struggling to learn all of that, but this is a fun way to learn. I see them all the time, and it’s helping me a lot.”

Autumn is one of dozens of students in three Nashua elementary schools – Charlotte Avenue, Broad Street and Mount Pleasant – who are benefitting from a new program, called Ongoing Assessment Program, that supplements the traditional math curriculum.

Too often, school officials said, students learn multiplication through memorization, but do not understand what they are doing.

The new program, funded by a three-year grant, provides professional development to teachers and encourages students to try out different ways of solving the same math problem. The teaching methods that educators gain help show students the connections between different math skills and concepts, increasing their understanding, and aim to reach all levels of learners.

“I think they see it as fun, and it gives them confidence,” said Charlotte Avenue fourth-grade teacher Amy Seo. “Fourth grade is really too early for a student to think they’re bad at math.”

The district started the OGAP program in August, after it received the three-year grant from the Vermont Mathematics Partnership, a nonprofit organization established in 2002 to bring together mathematicians and educators committed to helping all children in Vermont succeed in math.

When the group wanted to use its findings to help other districts, Nashua was selected as one of five field sites nationwide for the partnership’s OGAP professional development program.

The program identifies stages of student learning in math and helps teachers use assessments to identify which stage their students are at, and where they should be headed next.

All third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers at the three schools began their training for the program in August with a two-day workshop, and have been receiving periodic training ever since.

For teachers at Charlotte Avenue – Seo, and fellow fourth-grade teachers Amanda Silva and Rachel Quigley – the program has gone a long way toward helping them identify which students should be challenged with math instruction and which ones may need more help.

“Just being able to see what the kids are thinking, that’s always good teaching,” Seo said.

The OGAP program provides a framework of different approaches to solving a multiplication problem to help students develop multiplication skills that come automatically.

A student who is still beginning to grasp the idea of multiplication, for example, may use an additive strategy – seeing 3x2 and adding 2+2+2 to solve the equation, for example.

A more advanced student may use a transitional strategy, such as an area model, which helps students break down large multiplication problems into smaller, more manageable ones.

Students are encouraged to use visuals while solving problems, drawing pictures and grids, and talk through their thinking with their teachers and fellow students.

Teachers use these exercises to identify where students are on that framework, and help them move up toward more advanced strategies, personalizing that process for each student.

In Seo’s class Wednesday, students used a document camera to do their work at their seats, and then share their thinking with the rest of the class, projecting their worksheet onto the white board.

Students were eager to share, nearly all of them raising their hands and volunteering to head to the front of the class.

After the exercise, the students took a break to work in small groups, either for some extra instruction with Seo, or playing multiplication games with their classmates.

In Silva’s class, students also were working on a word problem.

But instead of simply asking students to solve the problem, Silva showed them five different ways to solve it, asked them to practice each one, and then asked them to think about which would be the most efficient.

The teachers said the practice of sharing students’ thinking is one of the biggest benefits of the program.

Not only does it allow teachers to see how their students are solving equations, it also lets students see how their peers are thinking, and can give them ideas about different ways to solve various problems.

“It really brings out their creativity,” Silva said.

Realizing that there is not one right way to solve a math problem also can boost the confidence of someone who may struggle in the subject, she added.

“The engagement and success of students is already evidenced by their confidence and enthusiasm for math,” Silva said. “For students who are weaker in math, this gives them that feeling of security, so it’s not so daunting.”

The students said they like using OGAP in their classrooms.

“It’s really helped me,” said Kate Conley, 9. “Going into this year, math hasn’t really been my favorite subject, but I kind of like it now.”

Like Autumn, Paul Gedziun, 9, has hung up math facts in his home, on the kitchen cabinets and doors, and in the bathroom and living room.

“It really helps me remember them,” he said.

Silva, Seo and Quigley said they’ve seen the
math program helping their students, but that the fourth-graders are not the only ones who are benefitting.

For Quigley, it’s transformed the way she teaches math, fitting in well with the lessons she has traditionally taught, but taking them up a notch.

“It’s really gotten me excited to teach math again,” she said.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also follow Curtis on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).