I just got back from a dinner with Jeff McCalla, high school math teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal in Memphis. Jeff is a past winner of the prestigious Presidential Award of Excellence for Science & Mathematics Teaching. He also does instruction for Texas Instruments and was introduced to me by both Jill Gough from Trinity School (also a former Presidential Award winner) and Jamie Baker of The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence. I am not able to visit St. Mary’s on this trip, but Jeff filled me in on some of their interesting work.
Jeff used to teach in public schools for many years, so when he came to St. Mary’s the teaching load seemed somewhat less. What has he done with that energy? He volunteers to team-teach with other veteran math teachers in their classes once a week. He says it is some of the best PD he has ever done: he gets to see other teachers’ subject approach and learns how to teach a class or two that he has not taught before. He is thinking of doing the same thing with a physics class. I asked why not go further afield, maybe to a middle school social studies class and work with the students and teacher to bridge that relevancy gap for math by working it into their curricular units? What if all of our teachers spent an hour a week team-teaching in another teacher’s class? Schools that have adopted a PLC-type PD structure understand that powerful resource we all have at our schools in the many great educators with diverse talents. Do you leverage that resource at your school.
In the work that Jeff and Jill do for TI, they train teachers how to use the Navigator hand-held system as more than just a math calculator. They use it to ask probing questions in real time and get individualized student feedback. Rather than using the tool to just solve problems, they are thinking about how to use the system to get students to probe more deeply into the problems they are working. Jill has incorporated the role of questioning in my book, The Falconer, in her past training, teaching math teachers to ask more provocative questions instead of providing canned formulas. I asked Jeff to take a different, or tangential track: how can teachers get their students to ask more provocative questions? This is really the key to student engagement. As teachers we should create the environment for the students to ask the questions, and then develop the skills to create pathways to find relevant answers.
Jeff also mentioned that St. Mary’s started a FIRST robotics club, and enrollment in their robotics class tripled. This is huge, particularly for an all-girl’s school. For others who see this kind of rapid student adoption and engagement of new course offerings, break down the course and figure out what is so compelling to the students. Those same factors that create high levels of student engagement and desire need to be adapted into all other courses. Some say it is hard or impossible; I think it is exactly what we have seen at all the schools I have visited on this journey where brushfires of innovation are changing the nature of student engagement.
Reach out to Jeff and Jill for more idea-sharing, and I will be reporting more this week on the work at The Martin Institute and Presbyterian Day School in radically individualizing math and other subject instruction to meet students where they learn best.