Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Angela Knapp.
Crystal May grabbed her dry-erase marker and wrote a math problem on the table: 40 times 40.
Five fourth-graders seated around the table at Pray-Woodman Elementary School in Maize grabbed their markers and got to work. Each came up with 160 – an incorrect answer.
“Who would like to share how they came up with 160?” the teacher said. “Bennett, what did you do?”
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Bennett Palmer pointed to his work. “I have 4-times-4 equals 16, and zero-times-zero equals zero, so just add those back together and that’s 160,” he explained.
May squinted, then launched into a pointed lesson on place value, using plastic cubes to illustrate 10s and 100s. Within minutes, the students were able to explain why the correct answer was 1,600, not 160.
These moments, May said, illustrate why small-group instruction – particularly in math – is more effective than traditional, whole-classroom approaches for most children.
And they’re what she and colleague Angela Knapp hope to replicate on a larger scale with the help of a $10,000 grant from a Virginia-based nonprofit group.
May and Knapp recently were awarded the grant from ASCD, formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. With it, they hope to help other Pray-Woodman teachers get a better understanding of grade-level math standards and develop strategies for teaching them.
“We know we lose pockets of kids in large-group instruction,” said Knapp, a math intervention teacher. “So we’re trying to look at: How can we change … to a small-group model, and how does that look in a classroom?”
We know we lose pockets of kids in large-group instruction. So we’re trying to look at: How can we change … to a small-group model, and how does that look in a classroom?
Angela Knapp, math intervention teacher
It may sound simple, she said, but it’s not. You can’t pull five or six students aside for a math lesson while 20 others just fend for themselves. It takes creativity, planning and a willingness to experiment with activities students can do on their own.
“We had a fifth-grade teacher who said, ‘I need to know what my students are doing independently,’ because it’s hard to be a fly on the wall,” Knapp said.
“Another teacher said, ‘I want to improve transition time,’ because you lose minutes the longer it takes them to get from station to station. So how can we tighten that up?”
Most of the grant money will be used to pay for substitute teachers to monitor classrooms while the Pray-Woodman teachers observe small-group strategies in action, Knapp said. Teachers also are undergoing a book study of Jo Boaler’s “Mathematical Mindsets,” looking at ways to battle students’ math anxiety and encourage a deeper understanding of math.
May, who switched to small-group instruction last school year, said she noticed immediate improvement in students’ math performance.
“A lot of my kids said, ‘This is the first time I’ve understood math,’ or ‘I get more time with you. I can ask you questions,’ ” she said.
A lot of my kids said, ‘This is the first time I’ve understood math,’ or ‘I get more time with you. I can ask you questions.’
Crystal May, fourth-grade teacher at Pray-Woodman Elementary in Maize
“They get four times the math today than they would have gotten had I just been standing up there lecturing. … I get a much clearer picture of where they are and what they don’t understand.”
Starting in January, two teachers in each grade level at Pray-Woodman will begin implementing small-group math instruction in their classrooms, having May or Knapp observe occasionally to offer suggestions and feedback. The teachers will monitor data, including test scores and grades, to see whether the changes make a difference.
One of the initiative’s greatest strengths, May said, is the fact that it was developed and implemented by teachers. ASCD, the organization that awarded the grant, specifically looks for innovations that bubble up from classrooms, she said.
“They truly believe that teachers are the experts, and they believe that we know where the problems are,” May said. “So they get the money and resources directly to the teachers to fix whatever it is the teachers are seeing.
“It’s really about promoting teacher leadership and creating advocacy within the profession.”