NIU training helps teachers in Rockford, Sauk Valley bring authentic math tasks into the classroom

Fourth-grade teacher Jessica Fettes is planning to have her students make trail mix in the classroom. John Phaff took his algebra students out to the school parking lot and asked them to calculate, “If a windstorm came through and a light post fell over, how many cars would it hit?” Second-grade teachers Joannie Zimmerly and Emily Majewski have an even more ambitious plan in mind: a months-long, full-school project to research and protect endangered animals. With hands-on lessons such as these, teachers in the Rockford and Sauk Valley areas are bringing authentic math tasks into their classrooms.

“The research is clear that students who work together to address a driving, real-world question build a deeper understanding of math concepts and learn critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity skills – the four Cs of 21st century education,” said Kristin Brynteson, director of professional development for NIU STEAM, in the Northern Illinois University Center for P-20 Engagement.

Brynteson is also the director of the Northern Illinois STEM Ready (NISR) project, which recently provided a professional development program to 160 math and science teachers (pre-kindergarten through high school), 80 from Rockford and 80 from the Sauk Valley area. Funded by a grant from the Illinois State Board of Education, the NISR project aimed to improve teachers’ math content knowledge, as well as provide training in project-based learning and college and career readiness. The project was a collaboration of the NIU P-20 Center, the NIU College of Education, the NIU Department of Mathematical Sciences and the Illinois Regional Office of Education  #47.

During the NISR training, teachers enjoyed working in groups, taking on the role of student.

At a final conference on Sept. 7, teachers had the chance to share the lesson plans they developed and insights they gained during more than 100 hours of training, which were spread out over the spring and summer. They also enthusiastically shared stories and solicited advice from one another about how their new lessons had worked so far during the first few weeks of school.

Many of the teachers said they’re eager to put into practice the lesson plans they created as part of the NISR training.

Fourth-grade teacher Jessica Fettes of Rockford, for example, said she’s planning to implement a lesson created during the summer training, in which students make their own trail mix. “[The lesson] has to do with fractions and different measurements, so I thought that would be good for fourth graders,” Fettes said. “They’ve been introduced to fractions before, but they’ve never really mixed different types of fractions, so that’s one I’m excited to do.”

Rochelle high school math teacher John Phaff had already put one of the lessons into practice. Phaff said he took his algebra students out to the school parking lot and asked them to calculate, “If a windstorm came through and a light post fell over, how many cars would it hit?”

Although the students struggled to apply their knowledge of proportions to calculate the height of the light post based on the length of its shadow, Phaff plans to continue to use hands-on lessons to teach topics such as proportion and slope. During a lively discussion, he and other teachers shared suggestions about when and how to give students needed hints to help them apply their knowledge.

Second-grade teachers Joannie Zimmerly and Emily Majewski of Amboy have an even more ambitious project in mind.

“Our entire unit for one of our quarters is endangered animals and fighting for a cause,” said Majewski. “Before what we did was teacher led. This time we’re going to have it all student led. So first the students will research animals and find out which ones are endangered and which ones they’re passionate about. Then they’re going to poll the entire school and see which ones the school thinks need the most help from us. The students need to think about the best way to fundraise so they can raise the most money, and then they’re going to turn around and adopt an animal.”

This large, interdisciplinary project will allow students to practice real-world math tasks such as graphing and tracking finances, while they also write papers, create commercials and practice communication skills. Teachers hope this kind of hands-on learning will motivate students and help them understand the relevance of education in their lives.

During the training, teachers also had a chance to meet with employers in the area and go on site visits to find out how their students might apply math and problem-solving skills in future careers.

“In August, for example,” said Brynteson, “the teachers went out and visited nature centers and some of our local municipalities, as well as hospitals, healthcare facilities, manufacturing companies, financial institutions and local news outlets. They got to hear from employers what kinds of career paths are available and what skill sets they look for in those careers.”

“That has been very helpful because the teachers are hearing some common themes from employers in a variety of industries,” Brynteson continued. “We’ve heard that communication is important, as is having employees who are coachable and can think critically and solve problems, as well as have those basic reading, writing and math skills.”

Teaching such critical thinking and problem-solving skills is not without its challenges. Like Phaff, fifth-grade teacher Kaylee Jones found that students had more difficulty figuring out hands-on problems than she had anticipated.

“The first thing I realized,” Jones said, “is that fifth graders hate to struggle! I took a one-day lesson that I thought they would figure out in about 40 minutes, and it took two days – they were so stumped.”

However, Jones pointed out, “The discussion that they were having was amazing.”

Brynteson describes these times when students are stumped and struggling as “the learning pit” (a concept borrowed from educational leader and innovator James Nottingham), and she says this can actually be an important step in the learning process. 

“We’ve talked a lot about the metaphor of the learning pit,” she said, “and how one of the ways to help our students have these eureka moments is to put them in the learning pit, where they struggle and they’ve got to figure out how to get themselves out.”

Brynteson said the teachers liked when NIU math graduate students and faculty taught them math content and had them solve problems during the NISR training. The teachers appreciated experiencing the role of the student.

“There were times when the teachers struggled or didn’t understand concepts,” Brynteson said, “and that helped them gain the perspective of what their students go through when they’re sitting in the classroom. It has helped to remind them of ways they can reach those students.”

And, of course, the students are the reason for all of this.

As one teacher shared during the final conference, “[Recently,] I had a freshman come back and tell me, ‘I understand my math this year! I’m getting it.’ So it was her aha moment, but I’m very excited for her.”

“Isn’t that what we live for?” another teacher replied, amid cheers and head nodding all around.

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