When it comes to teaching Math, Hebrew Academy Grade 6 teachers Sheri Gray and Lauren Thurber are way ahead of the curve. The two developed a unique self-paced Math program that has been a huge hit with their students; so much so that the teachers were eager to share the program as workshop presenters at Montreal’s recent QPAT (Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers) Annual Teachers Convention.

At a time when Hebrew Academy Elementary is increasingly applying Differentiated Instruction (DI) across all three languages, Mrs. Gray’s and Ms. Lauren’s program – which Mrs. Gray calls Math Quest and Ms. Lauren calls Super Mathio – exemplifies DI at its best. An educational philosophy, DI recognizes that in a classroom with dozens of students, effective instruction cannot be one-size-fits-all. DI also aims to make learning more of an active, collaborative experience; rather than observe a teacher at the front of the class, students work and learn from one another, at times in “communities” based on ability, interest or learning preferences, with the teacher serving as facilitator. Group assignments are flexible, and may be based on the teacher’s lesson or objectives for a particular day.

In 2015, Mrs. Gray initiated the self-paced Math program for her Grade 6 class, which she further developed with Ms. Lauren over the past couple of years. As the two explain, they saw the need for “a pedagogical shift that engages all students, offers them choice, allows for differentiation in the classroom, increases access to small-group learning opportunities, blends technology and develops 21st century skills.”

Other than their different names, the programs are identical: Mrs. Gray and Ms. Lauren structure the curricula in their respective classes; students work through concepts at their own pace, reflect on their understanding and then plan their next steps. The teachers serve as supporters – guiding everyone while focusing on students who may require more assistance and attention.

“We use the acronym WARP with the students,” said Mrs. Gray, “Work Independently, Assess your learning, Record your score and Plan your next step.”

Each unit in the curriculum explores multiple concepts over eight lessons. For the first step, instruction, students might watch a mini tutorial online, read a lesson in their class textbook, or request a one a one-on-one or small group lesson with the teacher. At times, the teachers might also give a brief class lesson.

“The students love to watch the videos because as they’re watching they can pause and watch them again if they need to,” said Ms. Lauren. “They can’t do that with a teacher. Kids can also do an example along with the video.”

The students then practice what they’ve learned (step 2) by completing exercises or activities including workbook lessons and online games. They then self-correct their answers with those posted online and check in with the teacher to demonstrate that they’ve mastered the concept (Step 3). Once they are given the all-clear, students reflect on what they’ve learned (step 4) by recording themselves on Flipgrid, a video-discussion platform viewable by their classmates and teachers.

As Mrs. Gray and Ms. Lauren explain, “for their reflections, we prompt students with questions. For example, when learning fractions, students might be asked to give a real world example of a fraction, or explain how you might compare two fractions. This step allows students to have a space for reflection and to articulate what they have learned. Students are also asked to consider what steps they will take to do well on the unit test.”

Throughout the process, students can check to see if they’re keeping up with their peers via a shared sheet on Google Classroom. A bulletin board that resembles a game board in each class also highlights students’ progress in a fun, non-competitive manner.

Once students feel prepared to take the test and have demonstrated their mastery of the skills to their teachers, they proceed to the final step: assessment.

“Students schedule their own test dates,” said Mrs. Gray and Ms. Lauren. “Those that have completed their assessment can move on to enrichment activities that may include designing a poster that explains a concept, designing a Math game for the class, or researching a topic from a Math perspective – like explaining climate change with charts and tables.”

In addition to honing students’ metacognitve and executive function skills including self-monitoring, organization, working memory and planning, the teachers note that the program also prepares sixth graders for life in high school, where they will work more independently.

“I like doing self-paced Math because if you’re quicker you can go more quickly and if you’re slower you can work more slowly,” said Ayelet Scheier, a student in Mrs. Gray’s class. Ayelet often takes the unit test before many of her classmates and has completed a few enrichment activities since the beginning of the year. Currently, she is developing an interactive online game centred on division and fractions, using the Kahoot platform. She will soon present it to her class.

“Doing enrichment activities is a way to present your own ideas to others, even if you’re not a teacher,” said Ayelet.

Most notable, is the degree to which students have been empowered by the self-pacing program.

“Students take ownership for their own learning,” said Mrs. Gray. “Through this they gain confidence and are eager to help others.”

Ms. Lauren agrees.

”The kids help each other in my class. I always say there are 18 teachers, not one. We see the students feeling empowered because self-pacing allows them to customize their learning experience – a social learner can have more time with the teacher and will enjoy making the reflection videos, the autonomous learner will enjoy the ability to decide on her own learning path and pace and having space to learn more independently, the mastery learner will enjoy the immediate feedback provided by knowing they’ve obtained a skill at each step of the way, and a big picture learner will be motivated by knowing what the entire curriculum is – and the end objective being transparent helps them see why they are learning this.”

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                                                                                                          –  by Aviva Engel, Director of Communications


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