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"How I Blended My Math Class" by Silvestre Arcos

This story first appeared in Education Week on June 18, 2014. You can view the original article here.

A little over two years ago, my current principal, Danny Swersky, emailed me about his vision for math instruction at KIPP: Washington Heights Middle School, a charter school that would soon be opening in New York City. Specifically, he told me that he wanted to personalize students’ learning with the help of technology. He encouraged me to play around a little with Khan Academy, the online lesson-content provider. I was immediately intrigued.

At that point in the school year, I had covered all of the standards that would be on the New York state test and was interested in finding new ways to engage my students while continuing to boost their skills. So I wheeled a set of school iPads into my classroom and introduced my students to the Khan website. Their response was even more enthusiastic than my own. They quickly started using the site to practice skills, earn “energy points,” and demonstrate mastery. I was excited about the instructional opportunities this kind of tool might present.

Two years later, I’m the founding 5th math grade teacher at KIPP: Washington Heights. My math classroom and my approach to teaching look quite different than they did during the first decade of my teaching career. In particular, my students spend more time working on the computers and in small groups, and I spend far less time teaching whole-class lessons.

My basic approach is to plan a general mini-lesson that targets a specific common-core standard, emphasizing problem-solving and conceptual understanding. I then look at the skills-progress report generated by the Khan site and group students based on their levels of progress on the standard in question. Students who have shown mastery in the skill complete a short exit ticket as they enter the classroom and then head to their laptops to go deeper into the topic or explore new topics. Students who need practice or are struggling with the standard complete some warm-up exercises and then take part in my mini-lesson. I scaffold the instruction by modeling and using visual representations to solve the problems along with them. The students then go to their laptops to continue their practice on the standard. At that point, I often bring together the more advanced students to work on a separate activity related to the skill we’re working on.

Meeting Individual Learning Needs

Leveraging technology in this way has allowed me to meet my students’ individual needs and push them at their current levels of proficiency. As the students work independently or in pairs at their computer work stations, I regularly pull students who need a smaller-group setting to access the day’s lesson. I also group students that need support with the language and background information, and I sit and work with students in ones or twos to address specific issues. Everyone in the room is working at their own level and pushing themselves forward at their own pace. By providing lesson scaffolds in various ways, I am able to make sure that all of my students, regardless of their individualized learning plan goals or English-language learning classification, are working on grade-level standards.

This model of math instruction also provides an excellent opportunity to teach students independence and responsibility, as well as to push them to live the character strengths of grit, optimism, and curiosity. At the beginning of every unit, I create posters that list the Khan Academy exercises aligned with our current unit of study from our curriculum scope and sequence. After choosing between Khan Academy and ST Math, a game-based instructional software program, student look at their individual skills-progress reports to decide what they need to practice and then work the exercises at their own pace. Once they have completed the playlist, they can demonstrate their curiosity by exploring new topics.

Once or twice a week, I project the whole-class skills-progress report to give the students a sense of where we are as a cohort and to give them an idea of who is working on the same skills. I frequently confer with students individually to give them feedback on the choices they’ve made in selecting what skills to practice and what exercises to use. Early in the year I go over strategies that they can use if they are stuck in deciding how to progress. In these ways, I aim to build the students’ sense of autonomy and independence and their ability to find their own solutions—characteristics they will need to succeed in later grades. Technology allows for the personalization of their character development as well as their academic development.

As a teacher, I’ve also recently been influenced by education researcher Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk titled “Build a School in the Cloud,” which emphasizes the importance of student collaboration. I’ve begun to incorporate more collaborative activities into my classroom—for example, by having students work on skills activities in pairs or small groups. I believe the students make significant cognitive and content-understanding gains by asking each other questions and in effect teaching each other the skills.

Shout Outs and Results

At the end of every class, my students have a chance to give a shout out to themselves or others for their accomplishments. “I want to give myself a shout out for leveling up on the exercise on Line Plots,” a student might say. “It was difficult for me in the beginning, but I showed grit, stuck to it, and was able to complete the exercise.” Students burst into applause and cheers when others earn their first “Sun Badge” to reward them for showing mastery on 100 skills. Once they meet their goals, they create new ones. On my classroom door, I post students’ names along with the Khan “energy points” they’ve earned and the number of skills that they’ve mastered. The students become increasingly optimistic that they can improve their achievement and their future opportunities through their own effort.

By using this model over the past two years, I’ve learned that students at every level can make tremendous gains in math achievement. This was not always the case in my classes. I used to see a lot of growth in my students of average proficiency, but I was never as successful in pushing my most advanced students to make significant gains or in making time regularly to help bring up the students who struggled the most. Now I’m finding ways to reach all of my students, many of whom enter our school several grade-levels behind in math.

Over the course of this year, the percentage of my students who were in the bottom quartile on the Measure of Academic Progress benchmarking assessment dropped from 50 to 11. Meanwhile, the percentage of students in the top quartile went from six to 41. Over the last two years, 99 percent of my 5th graders have met their growth goals on the Measure of Academic Progress test. They’ve also fared well on the state tests, performing above city and state averages and outpacing students in other schools with similar demographics.

Perhaps no less gratifyingly, we have seen students continuing to grow and learn outside of the math classroom. It is not rare for students to call or text me to let me know that they have earned a new badge or that they have met a certain goal. I feel that I am getting closer to achieving my goal of turning all of my students into independent learners.

Next year, I’ll be taking on a new position as the math instructional coach in my school. I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues in my school and around the nation on improving and scaling up this blended-learning model. It has helped me see new possibilities in instruction and improved my ability to address students’ individual needs—something that is huge for me, as I know it is for all teachers. I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned about the power of truly personalized math instruction.

Silvestre Arcos is the founding 5th grade math teacher at KIPP: Washington Heights Middle School. He holds a master's in bilingual/bi-cultural education from Teachers College at Columbia University. Arcos was a 2011 winner of Teaching Tolerance’s Culturally Responsive Teaching Award and a 2013 winner of New York City’s Big Apple Award for teaching excellence.