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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Fullerton IV Elementary: A Q&A with a Top-Notch Principal

Ideas for innovative ways to educate.

November 8, 2005
Credit: Edutopia

An interview with Mickey Garrison, principal of Fullerton IV Elementary School, in Roseburg, Oregon, whose school was named an Intel "School of Distinction" for its cross-disciplinary approach to math instruction.

What are the guiding principles used to teach mathematics at Fullerton?

For decades, the primary standard for success in traditional K-7 mathematics classrooms has been the ability to do accurate and fast paper-and-pencil calculations. Although basic skills with numbers continue to be vitally important and provide a crucial foundation for higher-level mathematics, it is not sufficient. At Fullerton, teachers use precise vocabulary to instruct students on how to reason about and justify mathematical statements. Students become proficient in their use of terms and notation, with appropriate degrees of precision.

Precision means that students use terms and symbols, consistent with mathematical definitions, in ways appropriate for students at a particular grade level. An emphasis is placed on our students' ability to formulate and solve problems. That is, students are able to communicate a clear understanding of the problem posed, translate the problem from everyday language into a precise mathematical question, choose and use appropriate methods to answer the question, interpret and evaluate the solution in terms of the original problem, and understand that not all questions admit mathematical solutions and recognize problems that cannot be solved mathematically.

What strategies did teachers use to emphasize math skills?

The foundational strategy is to teach mathematics in a real-world context. Teachers choose context with care. They manage the use of real-world problems or mathematical applications in ways that focus students' attention on the mathematical ideas the problems are intended to develop.

Fullerton teachers use a mixture of direct instruction, structured investigation, and open exploration. The decisions about what is better taught through direct instruction and what might be better taught by structuring explorations for students is made on the basis of the particular mathematics, the goals for learning, and the students' present skills and knowledge.

Are these strategies compiled in a format that can be put on the Web?

No, teaching mathematics effectively depends on a solid understanding of the material. Effective teaching requires understanding of the underlying meaning and justifications for the ideas and procedures to be taught, and the ability to make connections among topics. Fluency, accuracy, and precision in the use of mathematical terms and symbolic notation are crucial. Teaching demands knowing appropriate representations for a particular mathematical idea, deploying these with precision, and bridging between teachers' and students' understanding. It requires judgment about how to reduce mathematical complexity and manage precision in ways that make the mathematics accessible to students while preserving its integrity.

What strategies did you use to get buy-in from all of the teachers?

Our school district developed an inquiry-based improvement plan. The process of developing the plan involved a broad leadership base of teachers, parents, and administrators; professional development with study groups; and dialogue, through which educators challenged their own assumptions about student learning and inquiry. The plan focused on four main objectives: building a learning community, teaching for understanding, representing, assessing, and responding to the implementation of the cycle of inquiry, and access and management of resources.

When did the teachers get the professional development needed to incorporate the math skills in their classes?

Our district started with small groups of teachers who demonstrated willingness. These teachers became school leaders who disseminated skill instruction and learning strategies by modeling and engaging everyone, such as small-group dialogue, cooperative-learning strategies, problem solving, gallery walks, and protocols (effective methods of communication).

Next, all-school improvement days were allocated for mathematical staff development. Three-week summer sessions were then implemented to include learning opportunities that emphasized experimentation to increase teachers' ability to help student learn mathematics by increasing teachers' abilities to connect knowledge they were learning to what they already knew, to construct a coherent structure for the knowledge they were acquiring rather than learning a collection of isolated bits of information and disconnected skills, to engage teachers, who would then engage students, in inquiry and problem solving, and to take responsibility for validating their ideas and procedures to help teachers learn how to have mathematical discourse in their instruction.

Summer sessions are conducted each year for new staff and returning staff.

Lastly, our district committed to a three-year summer institute designed to increase teachers' mathematical understanding and leadership skills. Teachers must be able to do the mathematics they are teaching, but, moreover, they must have an in-depth understanding of the underlying meaning and justifications for the ideas and procedures to be taught, and the ability to make connections among topics.

Who delivered this professional development?

Initially, teachers from the Portland area who had already made the shift in how they were instructing mathematics provided staff development. Our district math coach, who is a teacher on special assignment, provides ongoing training. The summer institute training is provided through the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory staff.

How long have you been focused on this innovation?

Since 1998.

What strategies did you use to get buy-in from the parents?

Parent buy-in was systematic and at various levels. Parents participated in committee work in our early discussions and review of the research. Each school in our district sponsors Math Family Nights.

At Fullerton, we host four mathematic events a year. We kick off, in fall, with Back-to-School night, where parents and their children participate in math instruction for a forty-five-minute block; homework expectations are also reviewed, and parents have an opportunity to ask questions. In January, we host Computer-Chili Night, where students and their families use supportive technology programs we have in our computer lab. During March, we have a Math Game Night, where parents participate in a make-and-take session. Games that support our instruction are taught, and all the materials needed to make the game are provided.

Our last event is in May, when we have Fiesta Salsa Math Night. Mathematical work is displayed on classroom windows that open to a courtyard area. Students explain what they learned and help their parents expand their mathematical thinking. We wrap the night by learning how to do the "Electric Cha-Cha" and watching a local talented couple dance the salsa.

Are there at-home activities parents use?

Teachers provide parents with ongoing activities in their classroom newsletter publication.

What advice can you give to a principal who would like to implement a similar program?

Have a vision, and live by the words of the late Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry: "Leadership is getting someone to do what they don't want to do to achieve what they want to achieve." Once teachers see increased student learning, buy-in is automatic.

Did you need and get school district support and approval?

Yes, the district drove the initial change. It also supported me in integrating mathematics in everything we teach. Mathematics is not an isolated subject of instruction, but is the foundation for science, music, art, nature, and problem solving.

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