Do the Math

Two high school teachers, their department chair, and the instructional technology coordinator struggle to find ways to instruct students at many different levels of mathematical understanding.

The math department at Sherman High School meets after school.

Will finds teaching Algebra I a challenge.

Will Edwards raced down the hall, but still missed the start of the math department meeting. He slid into the chair Kamila Jasinski, the ESOL math teacher, had saved beside her. Kamila raised one eyebrow in question and handed him an agenda.

Will twisted in his seat a bit to get a better view of the projection screen. Mary, the math department chair, was in the middle of talking about the results from the required district benchmark assessments. She stood at the front of the room, laser pointer in hand. “We need to be sure we are reteaching the objectives that we see our kids missing on these tests. That means question-by-question analysis of responses.” She looked at Will and then around the room. “We all know the questions are modeled after the end-of-year statewide tests. If the students don’t know a particular skill, we’ve got to go back to that concept and work on it more.”

“Sheesh! When am I supposed to find time for that?” Will thought. “With my classes?” He’d been assigned a range of levels and classes: three Pre-Calculus sections and two Algebra I classes. He was having a good time in pre-calc, but algebra was another story. Many of these students were 10th and 11th graders. Some were ESOL students, but a good number were simply students who had not mastered fundamentals of middle school mathematics—even elementary math, for some. The state standards, district pacing guide, and required assessments were quite challenging for this group of students. They were barely covering required materials as it was. And now Mary was asking him to find time to reteach topics!

See sample test items for Algebra Concepts.

Review the district’s first quarter Algebraic I pacing guide.

Kamila works with ESOL students to build basic skills.

Will caught Kamila’s eye. She, too, was new at Sherman this year. They’d gone through the district’s 3-day orientation together and had become good friends. Sometimes Will thought she had an easier schedule: Kamila taught five sections of sheltered content math for ESOL students. This meant teaching them the math basic skills and English vocabulary that they would need to move on to “real” high school math like Algebra I and Geometry. Meeting standards for these kids was tough, Will knew, but, from what Kamila said, they were eager learners.

Read state Academic Standards for Mathematics.

The other teachers didn’t seem phased by Mary’s announcement, and Will didn’t care to bring up objections in front of his new colleagues. Although he’d been teaching for three years, he knew he looked young and that many of his colleagues assumed he was a brand new teacher. He needed all the appearance of competence he could muster.

Mary stuck to her agenda, thankfully, and the meeting ended promptly. Will helped himself to the cookies he’d missed due to his late arrival, and talked with Kamila about her upcoming weekend trip to New York. Mary joined them, but before she could say anything, Will began, “Sorry I was late. I got a call from a parent about a discipline referral her son got last week, and I felt like I had to take it.“

“Everything okay?” Mary asked.

“I think so,” Will said. “She was just checking up on him, seeing if he’s doing better, and he is, so it was all good.”

“They’re not always that nice!” Mary laughed, and then continued, “I just wanted to check in with the two of you and set up a time this week for your observations.”

Will shrugged, looked at Kamila, and said, “You wanna go first?”

“Sure,” she said. “You can come tomorrow if you’d like.”

“I’m meeting with Jenny Simmons during my planning tomorrow,” Will said. “So maybe you can come see the lesson we come up with?”

Mary seemed pleased at the mention of the Instructional Technology Resource Coordinator (ITRC) for their building. “Jenny’s great! I think you’ll learn a lot from her.” She paused for a moment, considering. “I’d love to see a tech lesson from you. With your algebra students.”

“Sure!” Will responded with more enthusiasm then he felt. “I’ll let you know, then.” He couldn’t imagine that a computer activity would suddenly make his kids, most of whom couldn’t even get fractions, suddenly understand slope and linear equations.

Mary observes Kamila and talks with her afterward.

Kamila reviews math concepts with her students.

Mary walked into Kamila’s third period class just as she was starting the day’s lesson. The halls had been noisy and crowded and so Kamila’s calm, quiet class of ESOL math students was a welcomed switch. She was pleased to hear Kamila start off by emphasizing the need to review for the upcoming quarterly assessment. After all, she thought, that’s what teachers need to be preparing students to take.


Kamila teaches a review lesson on fractions and mixed numbers to her ESOL math class.


As a department chair, Mary was supposed to serve as a mentor to teachers new to the math department. Today’s observation wasn’t considered formal—it didn’t go into teachers’ permanent files—so Mary just took notes about whatever issues concerned her. Today, performance on the state assessments was on her mind.

Mary wonders how best to coach Kamila.

From the interview process last summer, Mary recalled that Kamila had received high praise from her former principal for her pleasant way with students and good classroom management skills. Sure enough, the students today were well-behaved and attentive. But were they really interested and engaged? Were they doing anything more than parroting the teacher? Most important of all: Would they be ready for Algebra I next year?

Mary wondered how these students would respond if Kamila tried some different strategies, maybe used technology or assigned cooperative groups or a project. But how could she suggest this to Kamila without making her feel she was doing something wrong? Maybe she could find some middle school lesson plans online. They’d be instructionally appropriate and might help Kamila broaden her repertoire.

See the Serving Up Fractions lesson that Mary finds for Kamila.

Will and Jenny meet to discuss using instructional technology.

Jenny promotes the integration of technology into the curriculum.

Jenny waited as students from Will’s last class of the day filed out. Will stood at the door, joking with two remaining boys. “Hey, Will,” she said. “I hate to break things up, but I’ve only got thirty minutes.”

Will pointed to a chair next to his desk. “You can have the hot seat,” he said.

Jenny sat down, popped open a Diet Coke, and asked, “You said you wanted info about Algebra I, right? So what are you working on?”

“Well, we’re studying linear equations, a key concept, you know? And the kids just don’t seem to be getting it.” Will tried not to let his frustration show. “None of them are up to standard, even the smart ones. But they get bored with me going over and over the stuff.” He shrugged. “And then there are the ones who are struggling so much with slope and identifying the y-intercept that they can’t write the equation of a line.”

Jenny raised her eyebrows sympathetically. “Really?”

“Yeah. If the slope turns out to be a fraction, they basically give up. So I walk through it again and again. Then I lose the more advanced kids, and they start acting up. I don’t blame them, but it’s not like they’ve mastered the material either.”

“Have you tried giving the more advanced kids different work?” Jenny asked.

“Well, sure, but then I can’t teach them how to do it because the other kids need my help. Either way, I end up with a discipline mess.”

Jenny considered Will’s concerns about differentiating as she thought about how to respond. She loved her new position as an ITRC, even though, quite honestly, the job description was a bit much. She felt confident in the technology arena and believed she was getting better at coaching teachers. But, frankly, she wasn’t much better at differentiating for all of these different abilities than Will.

Review Jenny’s coaching job description.

Nevertheless, she was here to help Will through the use of technology, and she had an idea she thought might work. “Have you ever heard of Green Globs?” she asked.

“Is that the game with those dots?”

“That’s the one,” Jenny nodded. “They’re on a coordinate plane, and the kids have to figure out an equation and graph it to hit the globs and score points.”

Will nodded. “And kids will do this?”

Jenny smiled. “Kids love it! And because they play independently and work at their own pace, it keeps them challenged and then—”

“While the more capable kids play on their own,” Will finished for her. “I’d have some time to do one-on-one work with some of the others.”

“I can come in and bring the portable laptop cart to get you started on the first day,” Jenny offered. “You might need another pair of hands.”

“I sure will,” Will said. “These aren’t exactly the most motivated students.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Jenny said. “Honest,” she added when she saw the dubious look on Will’s face. “I’ve seen really unmotivated kids get involved when technology is used. Here,” she said, scooting her chair around his desk to type at his keyboard. “Let me show you this.”

Will scanned the web page she’d pulled up.

“This is a kid who went on to more advanced equations, all because he loved playing Green Globs so much.”

See Jared’s Glob Game.

“That’s impressive, I admit it,” Will said. “But you haven’t seen this class!”

Jenny didn’t give up. “When do you want to do this?”

Will pulled out his planning book. “Next Tuesday work for you? Sixth period?”

After Jenny left, Will checked his Outlook. There were the usual fifteen or so emails waiting, but he clicked on Kamila’s note first.

See Kamila and Will’s email exchange below:

Will shut down his computer and leaned back in his chair. How in the world would his 25 students do next Tuesday with plenty of computers and software, but not nearly enough basic math ability?