FOCUS in Sound - Claudia Walker

Spearheading innovation in mathematics education

Welcome to FOCUS In Sound, the podcast series from the FOCUS newsletter published by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  I’m your host, science writer Ernie Hood.

On this edition of FOCUS In Sound, we meet an elementary school mathematics teacher who is spearheading innovation in math education, through her activities both in and out of the classroom. 

Claudia Walker is a fifth grade teacher at Murphey Traditional Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina, a magnet K-5 school in the Guilford County Schools where Latin is taught and mathematical skills are emphasized.  She has been a classroom teacher since 1992, she is a national board-certified teacher, and has been teaching math and science at Murphey for the last six years.  She holds a BA from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in Education, Curriculum and Technology from the University of Phoenix.

In 2009, Claudia received a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers, a $175,000 grant over the course of five years designed to give outstanding North Carolina classroom teachers resources to enhance professional development and collaboration with other teachers.  With that five years wrapping up in 2014, we thought it would be a good time to check in and take stock with Claudia, and recognize her noteworthy achievements in mathematics education. 

Claudia, welcome to FOCUS In Sound…

Why, thank you.

Your school is one of six in North Carolina that is starting to teach math using the Singapore method on a pilot basis thanks to funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.  Tell us about the Singapore method, and how it differs from the mathematics teaching we all grew up with…

Singapore math, as we have been introduced to it, we’ve been learning that there are strategies, not necessarily a curriculum; a strategy that helps children basically learn math at a more hands-on, more conceptual level, and one of the things we make sure that the kids do as we’re learning Singapore math is that they have to make sure that they’re learning the math in a concrete way first, which means hands-on, visual, as much as possible, so that the kids understand the math concept.  And then from there we go to pictorial.  The kids are able to draw pictures that go with their math, visualize the math, use diagrams that help them understand the math, and then after that we go to A, which is abstract.  So the method we push is called C-P-A, so it’s Concrete, and then Pictorial, and then Abstract.  And by doing this, it’s different from the way we did when we were kids, because when we were kids they were very procedural.  We didn’t have a complete understanding of the math we were doing.  We learned that we had to carry the 1; we learned that we had to borrow; we learned all of those terms, and we were able to do it, but a lot of us basically grew up learning the procedure, and when it came to using math and applying math in real life, such as in chemistry or in engineering or physics, we were lost, because we didn’t understand the math concepts. 

So Singapore math, I think, is revolutionizing math teaching.  It goes hand-in-hand with Common Core, because Common Core is also asking us to teach children the concepts behind the math, not necessarily just the procedures. 

When we were growing up, we really learned mainly by rote, and this is really instilling those concepts, those mathematical concepts, at a very early age, then…

Yes.  In kindergarten through second grade, we’ve really pushed and stressed the fact that the kids should be learning the base 10 number system.  They need to learn how to work with 10; they need to know that working with the number 10 helps them develop mental math skills and abilities that’ll then help them be able to solve problems without stumbling over the computation.

How did you learn about the Singapore method?

I had attended a Singapore math conference that was provided by Staff Development for Educators, and when I attended the conference, I realized that this was something that, if I had learned math this way, perhaps my career path would have been different.  I was one of the students in the class that would struggle with math, that didn’t understand all of it.  I memorized things, I was great with my times tables, but when it came time to really apply it, I was lost, I was confused, I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know how to do it.  So when I saw the conference and what they were presenting, I said, this is something that I think that the kids in my school would really benefit from. 

I talked to the folks at Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and they told me that they were planning on implementing a pilot program in North Carolina with Singapore math, and I definitely wanted to make sure that my school and my students would benefit from it.

Where does this all stand currently at your school? 

This is our third year of implementation.  We have implemented kindergarten and first with our first year; the second year we had kindergarten, first and second, and then this year we have included third grade.  This is the year that we are going to be testing our students.  Their EOG [end-of-grade] tests should show us an increase in their number skills, and that’s what we’re hoping for. 

How is it going with the kids?  Does it seem to be working, or is it still too soon to tell?

The kids have shown remarkable improvement with their number skills.  And I, I’m a fifth grade teacher, and I work and coach the teachers that are implementing this in their classrooms.  And when I talk to the teachers in kindergarten and first grade especially, they’re seeing that this is the way to go, that this program helps the kids really develop the number skills.  They’re telling me that the students are really articulating their math more clearly, they’re understanding the baseline concepts, they’re able to explain what they’re doing, and they’re really not so much memorizing their facts the way we did, but are actually able to explain the math that they’re actually doing.  So I’ve seen a tremendous change.  That was one of the things I was worried about when I first thought about the program and brought the program to Murphey when we applied for it, but my principal and I said that if this was something that would change the way our kids think, that this was something that we wanted to do here at Murphey. 

My biggest concern was teacher bias, because of course they would be the ones that would be in the trenches, so to speak, with this program, and making sure that the kids are learning it.  So one of the things I did was, I met with the teachers every week during their math planning time to talk about how they’re teaching the math, what methods are they using, and a lot of the questions I would always get from them is, are we doing this right?  And how do we know we’re doing this right?  So it was a little bit of a struggle at first, and they really, we built, I guess, a system of trust between all of us, that we would help each other regardless of whether we felt comfortable teaching math – that we would support each other.  So we did that.  We met every week, we talked, we found articles, we communicated with another school that was also implementing it, and the teachers became more and more comfortable.  So much so that now in the third year of implementation, a few of the first wave teachers are ready to train other teachers and what they’re doing in their classrooms.

Well that sense of teacher buy-in is so very important in any new educational initiative, so it’s wonderful that you’re being able to accomplish that and get that enthusiasm back from the folks as you say in the trenches who are going to need to implement…

And they like it.  They say the same thing I said when I first started, and I wish I had learned math this way, too, it would have been a different task for me, perhaps, or even the path that we took as teachers, we would be teaching the children differently in the past years that we had been teaching.  So it’s changed our way of teaching, it’s changed our approach to teaching math.  We do a lot more of the eight mathematical practices that have been brought by Common Core.  We had started to do that before Guilford County actually implemented Common Core.  The perseverance, the solving problems different ways, the talking about math and being able to defend your thinking…all of this has changed the way we teach math in our classroom.

As this is a pilot program, what metrics will you and the other schools who are using it use to monitor the program’s progress or success?  Will there be a control group, for example?

As far as I know, Burroughs Wellcome is working with a company that is going to look at the test as a standardized testing result and be able to compare it to a school that is similar in demographics to our own.

Do you see it as likely or even inevitable that the Singapore method will eventually be adopted throughout North Carolina schools, or even nationally?

I definitely see that because of the implementation of Common Core in the state of North Carolina.  Singapore math is very in tune and in line with the Common Core standards for mathematics, in the sense that it asks us to go deeper and teach more conceptually. 

Do you see this as one way to start to close the achievement gap between US students and their international counterparts in countries like Singapore? 

Absolutely.  We have the ability to turn around the way that people see math.  One of the things I’ve always said is, people would never say to you, “I don’t know how to read.”  But anybody will always say to you, “I’m not very good at math.”  And that’s one of the mentalities that I think that we have the ability, from the ground up, from elementary school up, that we can change with our students.  They shouldn’t leave my classroom saying “I don’t like math,” or even “I don’t know how to do math.”  The same exact way that they would leave a reading classroom saying, “I know how to read,” versus “I don’t know how to read.” 

What has the Career Award allowed you to do over the course of the past five years that you might otherwise have been unable to do, either in the classroom or in your own professional development?

The Career Award from Burroughs Wellcome has really given me the freedom to really explore the vast amount of professional development for teachers, especially one like me who enjoys science and math.  Without the award, I wouldn’t have attended as many math conferences and science conferences and Common Core conferences, because of the financial burden on it.  Not only is it the travel expenses and the registration fees, but also substitutes here at school, and as a result of the grant too I was able to take teachers with me, and of course I would not have been able to do that.  Having the Career Award has allowed me to network, to meet colleagues that are like-minded and that have a passion for teaching kids and for making sure that the next generation science standards and the Common Core is not going to be just another program that is coming through in education; that it’s something that we believe in.  I think that making sure that the kids are learning more critically, to learn how to think critically, to learn how to explain what they’re doing, I think that that’s something that we really need to work on.  And because of the grant, I was able to work with people who knew this, to work with people who agree with this, and then to make sure that here at my school I was able to, again, get more staff members to go and to also see the changes that are coming and how we can be a big part of that. 

So ultimately the grant allowed you opportunities to make yourself and those around you better teachers...

Yes.  I have a technology team that I pretty much take with me to the different conferences, and the idea of it was for them to learn how to use technology in the classroom, and then be able to train other teachers here at the school how to use it.  And not just how to get on the website and go to a game or things like that, but to actually have the kids using technology to further their thinking, or to be able to explore ideas or even share ideas.  So I was able to get Chromebooks for my classroom, and the kids collaborate on projects.  They’re also able to watch video training.  For example, if I’m teaching division, and one of the students is just not getting the concept, then I would direct them to a video that furthers that concept so that I can work with other kids while they’re getting retrained, so to speak, with that particular skill.  That kind of use of technology, a more thoughtful use of technology, not necessarily, like I said, just visiting the website. 

Right.  So not like the old days when the teachers would show you a movie for an hour, right?

Exactly, but now we can show a movie and we can have the kids use back-channeling on different programs like Edmodo, that they can answer questions that we’ve posted for them during the movie.  So there’s interaction during the movie instead of just sitting there taking notes. 

Wonderful.  In addition to the Career Award, this year, of course, you were one of 63 K-12 teachers in North Carolina to receive a PRISM, or Promoting Innovation in Science and Mathematics, grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  I understand that you will use your $3,400 award to promote fitness among your students and their families in some innovative ways.  Tell us more about your PRISM-funded program…

Well Ernie, one of the things that we teach in fifth grade is the human body, and how the different body systems interact with each other and depend on each other in order to function.  And in fourth grade, the curriculum is for the students to learn about how to stay healthy and how to stay fit and nutrition.  So what we thought about doing is having a day…we already have a wellness program here at Murphey where the kids get fruit and vegetables every day, from another grant, and we thought of tying that in with our curriculum, and we would have the kids learn how to use the PE equipment that’s in our playground, be able to train the younger students how to use the equipment effectively, not just to jump over it, but actually use it to do sit-ups or to do pull-ups or things that are a little bit more active.  And then our fifth-graders would be researching and preparing packets that they can send home with every child that has a little bag with a jump rope, a pedometer…something that would help the kids get more active at home with their families.  And we would have a wellness fair here at school where we would present the bags, and a program, and perhaps even have something like a million-step walk, where they can walk a certain path, and at each station they would stop and do a different exercise that has been researched by our students. 

That sounds like a great program and something that will make those fitness elements great fun for the kids and their families.  Well Claudia, your passion for and commitment to the work you’re doing really shines through…where does that come from and how do you keep it fresh?  After more than 20 years, too many teachers, as we all know, start showing signs of burn-out.  How do you keep it fresh?

I think about that a lot because one of the things that, one of the reasons that I came into teaching was I didn’t want to be in an office that had the 9-to-5 drudgery and boring, to me.  I did not want to do that.  And because teaching is different all the time, and because the students are different all the time every year I get them, I always want to make sure that my kids, especially since they are from a disadvantaged school, receive as much information as possible to make them as competitive as their peers in more resource-rich schools than ours.  So that’s one of the things that I always want to do.  I want to make sure my kids have that competitive edge; that they’re not going to get to middle school and high school and see something for the first time that perhaps I had the opportunity to show them here.  And that’s one of the reasons I make sure that I’m always looking for something new, I’m always wanting them to try something new, and I want to show them what’s out there for them. 

Claudia, you are doing some great and important work where it counts most, down there in the trenches working every day to give the children the highest possible quality education.  We wish you the best of luck for continued success, and thanks so much for joining us today on FOCUS In Sound…

Thanks, Ernie, I appreciate it.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of the FOCUS In Sound podcast.  Until next time, this is Ernie Hood.  Thanks for listening!