Learning new math concepts in school was like learning a new language, foreign and challenging. I struggled to understand what it all meant. How can a letter represent a number? Why are there so many different ways to write numbers? Let’s just keep it simple. I was baffled by fractions and decimals in school. Not until I started teaching math did it all start to come together for me. Why was that? Why didn’t I understand math better in school? Why was it so difficult to grasp new math concepts? Perhaps it was how the teachers taught the material. Maybe my teachers weren’t engaging or didn’t teach the new material in a way that made sense to me. Whatever the reason, I do often wonder how things might have been had a peer or friend explained the material to me in a more student-friendly manner. Would that have made a difference? I guess I’ll never know.
However, the current math unit that we began today in STEM class, will definitely shed some light on the topic for me. About a month ago, as I was planning my unit on Chemistry for STEM class, I was talking to a ninth grade math teacher about how he covered particular topics. I was curious to learn how other teachers instruct math concepts. I could always learn a thing or two. That’s when this colleague told me about his Algebra 2 class. They are high-functioning students tackling very challenging math concepts. On went the epiphany light bulb in my head. I had an idea. I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if your ninth grade class prepared and taught mini-lessons on the topics my sixth graders will be covering? Your students could be the teachers for my boys. What do you think?” He of course loved the idea. So, over the past month, this collaborative math unit has been growing and developing. Today was the big test. How would it go? Would the sixth graders find it helpful and engaging? Would the ninth graders be able to handle teaching sixth graders? These questions and more filled my head, but I remained positive.
So, I introduced the math unit, reviewed the requirements and expectations before the ninth graders came into work with my students. I split the students up into their three tracks and assigned each group a separate area in the classroom. The sixth graders quickly got to their spaces as the ninth graders got to work being the teachers. Many of the ninth graders had mini-lessons prepared and jumped right into them. The boys listened intently. Then, the mentors noticed that some of the students were functioning at different levels despite being in the same group. So, they differentiated their instruction. The ninth graders split the sixth graders in each group apart to provide the most effective instruction to each student. In the track two group, the ninth graders noticed that some students needed direct instruction to learn the material while some of the other boys needed more guided practice with manipulatives. So, the students provided the best math experience to each student based on their ability and comfort level. Some of my students were completing their math packet with the aide of the ninth graders, while other students were working closely to comprehend new math concepts. It was amazing, watching the ninth graders take over my class. They were explaining the math concepts in more boy-friendly language than I ever could. One student used colored building blocks to explain how to combine like terms for one student who seemed to struggle with this skill. At one point, I heard that struggling student say, “Oh, I get it now.” Wow! I meandered throughout the classroom during the period, in total amazement at how well this partnership between the ninth grade and the sixth grade was going. My students were comprehending the material in new and engaging ways. They were enthralled.
So, maybe having students work together as peer teachers can really be effective. Clearly, the data I collected in my class today proved this point without a doubt. Why? Was it the novelty of this new approach for my boys? Did that make a difference? Was it because of the different language the students used to introduce and discuss new concepts? Did that make the difference? Lots of questions with no real answers right now. As this unit goes until the holiday break in December, I will continue to collect data and make noticings and observations about how my students are learning and engaged when working with the ninth graders. Right now though, I’m just happy with today’s result.