SCSD Math Teachers, Students Benefit from Professional Development Grant

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Middle school math teachers in the Syracuse City School District—and their students—are benefitting from a two-year, $1.7 million Math and Science Partnership grant, awarded in August 2014, which allows collaboration and professional development among the district’s math instructors.
A partnership with the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning and Learnzillion brought SCSD math teachers the opportunity to participate in several ‘Saturday Academy’ staff development days. These workshops allowed staff to study planning for and implementing high-level tasks in the classroom. They also allowed for a new collaboration with national leaders in the field of mathematics, such as Margaret Smith (a Senior Scientist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center) and Steve Leinwand (a math education consultant who serves as Principal Research Analyst at the American Institutes for Research).
Melanie Cifonelli, Syracuse City School District Supervisor of Math, says that the programs have already impacted classroom performance. “Some teachers have noticed more students participating in class and having a voice in class,” she said. “During the last session, I spoke to a sixth grade teacher who was just thrilled with the work her students produced on the last task. She was so proud to share her student work because the students really were engaged in the work and had different ways of tackling the problem.”
These workshops, which were attended by math teachers from each middle school in the district, provided teachers with a high level task each week. At the following session, teachers would work together to share their experience implementing the task in the classroom and receive feedback. Topics discussed included how to plan student solution paths to questions, how to ask questions to keep students engaged in a task and more.
Grant Middle School math teacher Amber McKay said that while the sessions have been a learning process, they are worth it for the results she sees in the classroom, “Our students have shown considerable growth with the math discussions and often are upset when class ends but they feel they haven't finished with the discussion fully!”
“Through this grant, we have learned how to connect professional development with having a direct impact on classroom instruction,” Ms. Cifonelli explains. “I strongly feel that as we continue to increase student engagement in thinking, justifying, and explaining their mathematical understanding, the better we as teachers can advance student understanding pushing students to become mathematically proficient and college, career and civic ready.”
Laurie Holtsberry is a Math Instructional Coach at Salem Hyde Elementary School. Her part in the development sessions was to work with teachers to help shift their thinking before going into a lesson, as well as to lead the discussions about what teachers are implementing in their classroom. “What we’re finding as a result of the grant and our Saturday sessions is that teachers are finding more success with what they’re doing. Teachers are now engaging in conversations with kids more, rather than just giving information. There is now more student-to-student and student-to-teacher discussion, rather than a teacher just giving a lecture,” Ms. Holtsberry says. “These sessions have helped us establish a learning community that will exist even when the grant is done.”