State College Area School District elementary teachers recently became students themselves, opening their notebooks and laptops and delving into the mysteries of dividing fractions.
A remedial math class? Hardly. The all-day professional development session in a district conference room was part of a new collaboration with the Pennsylvania Math Initiative, a Penn State-based program that helps improve K-5 mathematics instruction.
Started in 2013, PMI offers a workshop series taught through a partnership between the Penn State College of Education and the Penn State Department of Mathematics, engaging teachers in learning activities and discussions. The goal is to deepen teachers’ mathematical proficiency while providing them with more responsive teaching methods that encourage exploration and reflection. It’s a simple equation: fluency plus pedagogy equals stimulating math lessons.
“You need mathematical content expertise to teach mathematics effectively,” said PMI Director Andrew Baxter, a Penn State math lecturer, noting that the workshops focus not on the mechanics of elementary math but the logic behind concepts. “It’s not just sometimes you do this and sometimes you do that, but there is a cohesive understructure to how everything connects.”
Knowledge by itself, however, isn’t enough. Teachers must be able to translate their heightened understanding into effective instruction. PMI strives to help them lead students to solutions by modeling a recommended approach in workshops — analyzing problems, considering multiple pathways, comparing work.
“One of the things to the problem-first approach is we’re a student-centric model,” Baxter said. “How do we know what to say next? Well, it depends on what the student says. It’s not just because of what the script says. It’s because the students are saying this; they seem to be at this point of their understanding. How do we get them to the next point?”
Since its inception, PMI has taught more than 200 teachers across 30 school districts, primarily through summer workshops at Penn State. Their reputation led to the district’s interest in an extended version. Last summer, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Vernon Bock and Director of Elementary Curriculum Deirdre Bauer met with Baxter, and out of their discussion came the idea for a five-year series.
With a surplus of volunteers last fall, the district had to create a waiting list, but no one should fret: Before the series ends, all elementary teachers will have had the opportunity. During each school year through 2021-22, a cohort of selected teachers will participate in eight monthly workshops. This year’s debut cohort was formed from grades 3-5, one teacher per grade level from each school as well as four instructional coaches. In addition to Baxter, Fran Arbaugh and Andrea McCloskey, both Penn State associate professors of mathematics education, are teaching the workshops.
“I’m very excited about the partnership we’ve established with PMI and Penn State to provide our elementary teachers with a deeper proficiency in mathematics,” Bock said. “The feedback from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of the teachers report they are using strategies they’ve learned through PMI in their classrooms already. This type of immediate success is rarely seen through professional development and will have a profound impact on students’ development as mathematicians.”
After her first three sessions, Park Forest Elementary teacher Michele White has felt empowered to expand her curriculum lessons and engage her students in reflective thinking about problems. “As a math student in the sessions, I have a greater appreciation for what I’m asking the kids to do,” she said. “It really puts me back in their situation, which is neat. I find myself getting excited when I get the right answer.”
Now, she said, she allocates more time for students to share their thinking about strategies, to justify their answers, and to compare ideas with those of classmates.
“I think this will give them the opportunity to understand the math more deeply,” White said. “I know that I am learning new things about math as an adult that I didn’t know before, not only about math content but also about being a math teacher.”
Radio Park Elementary teacher Gail Romig took summer training five years ago as an instructional coach and, in that role, has imparted bits of PMI’s wisdom to colleagues via monthly “10-minute takeaway” sessions. Her training, she said, reminded her of the importance of “rich mathematical tasks” for students.
“You can present one problem, but it has to be a rich problem where there’s a lot of thinking and adjusting as you’re going along so that the students are engaged,” she said.
Back in the classroom, she employs the PMI approach with problems such as figuring out permutations for an 18-foot chicken coop perimeter. She continues to draw on eight mathematical principles that PMI emphasizes, including making sense of problems and persisting in solving them, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, and using appropriate tools strategically.
“That’s about thinking like a mathematician, and PMI stresses that a lot,” Romig said. “And I stress that with my students.”
Ultimately, Romig believes, the PMI workshops will transform elementary math education in the district — the sum of many re-energized teachers.
“I think it will be a game-changer for our students because it’s a game-changer for our teachers,” she said. “The teachers I’ve talked to, who are attending PMI this fall, have said to me, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been missing.’ They’re now more excited to teach math because they’re learning about mathematics in a different way. When you’re immersed as learner, it inspires you to go back and teach in that same way. You want to have your students experience that excitement around mathematics you’ve just experienced.”
Chris Rosenblum is the SCASD director of communications.