- Associated Press - Saturday, February 14, 2015

MALTA, Idaho (AP) - As 25 fifth-graders bent over their papers, trying to solve a story problem, visitor Rhonda Birnie strolled the aisle, glancing at their work.

“I like the way you’re thinking,” Birnie said, pausing beside a student who was asked not only to write an answer, but also to demonstrate how it was found.

At another desk, she stopped to help a student reason through his answer to determine why it was wrong.

Math problems have only one correct answer, but some can be reached through multiple ways, she said.

Birnie is a regional mathematics specialist with the Idaho Regional Mathematics Centers at Idaho State University.

The Legislature provided $1.6 million in fiscal 2014-15 for the centers, a program now in its second year, to forward work begun with the Idaho Math Initiative’s professional development for teachers in their classrooms. It also dovetails with the Idaho Common Core Standards.

Each of the state’s four-year colleges houses a center.

At a teacher’s request, a math specialist visits the classroom and demonstrates a lesson to the students so the teacher can learn new teaching methods.

Birnie, for example, was visiting Katerina Loock’s class at Raft River Elementary School. She visits classrooms from Malta to Glenns Ferry, and from Hollister to Sun Valley.

When teachers get stumped, she said, they generally fall back on how they were taught.

“And they were taught procedurally. When the rubber hits the road and there are 30 kids in the classroom, it’s easy to fall away from a newly learned method.”

At most universities, K-8 teachers only take one course on how to teach math, and they are expected to be experts on all subjects, Birnie said.

Most Idaho teachers still teach math procedurally instead of fostering deeper mathematical thinking, said Cory Bennett, the program’s director at Idaho State University.

Students can memorize that five times five equals 25, but they need to be able to apply what that means in real life, said Christine Avila, mathematics coordinator for the Idaho Department of Education.

Birnie said the teacher should instill that deeper understanding of math in students because the procedural approach falls apart in higher-level courses.

Even if a teacher has learned to foster such deeper thinking, they may abandon the method if colleagues disapprove, Bennett said.

“This program is really cutting edge,” he said. “Idaho is really ahead of the curve on this. We are getting phone calls from people in other states asking us about the program. We are making waves.”

Parents such as Brenda Anderson, who has students in kindergarten, fourth and sixth grades at Raft River, are welcome to observe the math coaching.

“I have concerns with math and where it’s headed,” Anderson said.

It’s really about teaching kids to reason through their answers and to push for more mathematical thinking, said Birnie.

“We want them to become flexible thinkers and not just cover a lot of content. That way when they run into stumbling blocks, they persevere,” she said.

She said she struggled with math as a student.

“I didn’t like it. It made me feel like I wasn’t smart. I couldn’t do it fast enough,” said Birnie, who taught K-6 for 23 years.

During the demo in Loock’s class, she stressed giving students enough time to think through their answers, acknowledging that different methods can be used to find the answer as long as it’s correct.

Decades of research shows that to ensure effective teaching, educators must be supported as professionals - and the support must be embedded in the classrooms, Avila said. The program is based on that research.

“In some rural districts, teachers don’t even have the opportunity to work with colleagues,” Avila said.

Bennett said the program’s success hinges on ensuring that legislators understand what is accomplished.

“We have three math specialists who cover half the state, and there is a huge demand,” he said. “Clearly, we are understaffed.”

Demand for Birnie has been high, said Debbie Critchfield, spokeswoman for the Cassia County School District.

“This is only the second year for the program, and it’s not easy to get on her schedule. The response from the teachers has been overwhelming. Those who have heard about her want to get her into their classrooms, and those who have had her want her back,” said Critchfield.

Teachers find it difficult to apply in the classroom what they learn in a workshop, she said. “This is professional development in real time. She is coaching and modeling the best practices, and you can just see how the students are accepting it.”

“Having her come in has been very helpful,” said Vicki Babbitt, who has used Birnie’s coaching in her sixth-grade class at Oakley Elementary School.

“Instead of just giving the answer quickly, she teaches the students to think about how and why they gave an answer_and then they really learn from it,” said Babbitt.


Information from: The Times-News, https://www.magicvalley.com

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