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Common Sense

American Teacher
January/February 2013
Feature Story

Thinking Math helps schools make a smooth transition to the Common Core State Standards.

THE EXCITEMENT OVER Thinking Mathematics runs deep in Volusia County, Fla., especially at Pathways and Pine Trail elementary schools where teachers say the AFT program is making math fun and concrete for students, and helping the two schools make a seamless transition to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.

Becky Pittard, a fifth-grade teacher at Pathways, may be Thinking Math's biggest cheerleader. The strategies embedded in the program, she says, "light up the joy of teaching mathematics."

Pittard, a national trainer for the AFT's Thinking Math program, says it "has completely changed my approach to teaching math."

Conceived more than 20 years ago, Thinking Mathematics is a professional development program for K-8 math teachers. It was one of the first teacher/researcher partnerships, bringing together AFT members and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

The center provided a library of solid research, access to experts and lively discussions about their findings. It was a team of AFT teachers, however, that decided which elements of the research would be most useful for teaching, testing the ideas in their classrooms, and combining knowledge from both the research and practitioner communities to create the Thinking Math program.

Today, Pittard gives Thinking Math high marks. The link between the program and the Common Core math standards is, she says, probably the best reason to consider implementing the program. Its approach to teaching math, she adds, "perfectly aligns" with the stated goals of the standards.

Stephanie Hajdin, who teaches at Pine Trail, agrees. The 10 principles of Thinking Math dovetail with the Common Core standards, she says. "I know that when I'm using Thinking Math, I'm covering everything that I need to cover."

Thinking Math's popularity extends to administrators like Pathways principal Joe
Ronca, who says the program has really helped "as we make the shift toward Common Core standards and higher-order thinking skills."

Under the leadership of Volusia Teachers Organization president Andrew Spar, the union and the district have collaborated on the expansion of Thinking Math.

At one county school, Cypress Creek Elementary, teachers and the administration have focused on introducing parents to the new math standards. The school hosted family nights where parents were told what they can expect to see their children learning and why.

Building kids' math confidence

In recent years, Thinking Math courses have been adapted to include an introduction to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.

Thanks to trainers like Pittard, teachers at Pathways and other schools in Volusia County receive regular training in the principles of Thinking Math.

Maybe the best way for teachers to learn how to incorporate Thinking Math into their lessons is to observe another teacher using it in the classroom, says Heather Williams, a teacher at Pathways and the union's building representative. "Teachers new to Thinking Math need to see it in action."

Several teachers say their own excitement about the program pales in comparison with their students' enthusiasm. The kids are "completely engaged" in their lessons because of Thinking Math, says Williams. "I see a great amount of growth in kids who were previously struggling in math" because the program "makes math more concrete for them."

Thinking Math introduces students to "those real, practical concepts that our students are going to need later in life," says Pathways teacher Cynthia Cosio.

Student achievement data collected at the school show that math scores have gone up since the introduction of Thinking Math.

Diane LeJeune, a third-grade teacher at Pine Trail, says her students are "a lot more confident in their math skills" as a result of Thinking Math, and she believes the program yields long-term benefits. "These kids are going to grow up in a society that requires them to be critical thinkers, to solve problems for themselves," she says. "Thinking Math requires them to think deeply about any given problem or scenario that we're working on."

For Thinking Math really to take root, teachers need to be given the time to develop their lessons and, if possible, participate in lesson study groups where they can get together and talk about the research, Williams says.

Trainers need to be available to go into classrooms to support and advise teachers new to Thinking Math, adds LeJeune, who says the program has opened her eyes to "how valuable and empowering" the AFT and the resources it provides can be.

Thinking Math has "shown me how the union can play a critical role in the dissemination of information that can help teachers become better at their craft."