Hofstra Horizons Research

The Mathematics Learning Community Project: Placing Resources Where It Matters the Most

Blidi S. Stemn
Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Teaching

The Mathematics Learning Community Project: Placing Resources Where It Matters the Most.

The direction that mathematics education has been endeavoring to follow in the last decade has been infl uenced by many factors, including a mathematics curriculum and instructional practices that emphasize inquiry, building of problem-solving skills, and use of activities that require students to think critically (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000). This perspective is a departure from “traditional” mathematics teaching and learning in which the teacher is a depositor of knowledge while the students are recipients of neatly packaged mathematical knowledge to be memorized without questioning. These new directions promoted by mathematics education reformers require teachers to expand their content and pedagogical knowledge. This is particularly essential for elementary school teachers because they are required to teach all the core academic subjects (math, science, English language arts, and social studies). As a result, they may lack the necessary depth in mathematics content and pedagogy that would enable them to build their students’ profi ciency in mathematics. In addition to a profound knowledge and understanding of fundamental mathematics content (Ma, 1999), teachers need what Ball, Hill, and Bass (2005) refer to as mathematics knowledge for teaching. One way to support teachers in this direction is through carefully and thoughtfully designed ongoing professional development.

My research and professional interests have focused on problem solving, professional development of teachers, and issues of social justice in mathematics education from a global perspective. Throughout my professional career as a mathematics teacher educator, I have worked with classroom teachers and children, particularly in multicultural settings, collaborating to find ways to improve teaching and raise students’ achievement. This experience is invaluable, and it directly informs what I do in my mathematics methods courses for prospective teachers. The day-to-day issues I come across in the classroom as I work with teachers continue to influence the content of my preservice methods courses. I strongly believe that improving teaching and student achievement, particularly in low-achieving schools, is a social justice issue, and that I have a moral and professional responsibility to contribute to improving mathematics teaching and learning in my community.

Since my arrival at Hofstra University, I have been working with classroom teachers in the Hempstead School District through the Teacher/Leader Quality Partnership (TLQP) initiative. This program, which is funded by a grant obtained from the New York State Education Department under the No Child Left Behind Act (Title II, Part A, Subpart 3), is administered by the Center for Educational Access and Success at Hofstra University. The aim of this initiative is to improve student achievement in mathematics and science by improving the quality of teachers and administrators in high-needs school districts. The TLQP program at Hofstra University provides professional development in mathematics, science and technology to elementary schools in the Hempstead and Roosevelt School Districts.

Professional Development in the Hempstead School District

As the coordinator of the mathematics component of the TLQP program in the Hempstead School District, I have provided in- and out-of-class professional development for three elementary schools during the past three years. The program brought together a total of nine K-5 teachers from three schools in the district: two kindergarten teachers from the Early Childhood Center, four teachers from Jackson Main Elementary School (grades 3-5), and three from Jackson Annex Elementary School (grades 1-3).

As the mathematics education specialist, I sought to create a Mathematics Learning Community (MLC) where teachers came together to study and improve their teaching. The process involved group planning of lessons, peer observations, post-lesson reflections and discussion involving all members of the MLC, and individual written reflections. During each lesson, attention was directed particularly toward the nature of the mathematical tasks in terms of the cognitive demands. Cognitive demand in this context means “the kind and level of thinking required of students in order to successfully engage with and solve the task” (Stein et al., 2009, p. 1). In addition, teachers’ questioning strategies, whether they were using open-ended or closed-ended questions, and how they engaged students in analyzing, discussing and solving problems became an object of study.

The in-class component of the program occurred once a week, with teachers taking turns to teach while the rest of the MLC observed and took notes for the post-lesson refl ection and discussions. Often the lessons were videotaped while the refl ection sessions were audio-recorded and transcribed.

Another important component of the professional development program was a once-a-month study group session held at Hofstra University. The teachers found this two-hour session valuable in that it allowed them to talk in-depth about their teaching. Furthermore, I engaged them in doing mathematics, hence challenging them to revisit their mathematical knowledge for teaching. For example, we were not simply interested in whether they could accurately compute 3 1/2 divided by 1/2, but whether they could explain what the expression meant and whether they could create a word problem that corresponded to the expression. Also, emphasis was placed on whether they could solve the problem using a concrete or a pictorial representation. Some of the ways I have tried to accomplish this include asking teachers to do mathematics and analyze videotapes of children doing mathematics, and bringing their own students’ work to the session for analysis and discussion. This yearlong, two-pronged approach to professional development is different from the one-shot meeting model. The MLC approach described in this essay provides opportunity for teachers to (1) learn from one another as they examine their teaching, (2) examine students’ thinking and learning, and (3) participate in productive collaboration.

Changes in Teacher Practice

The instructional practices of the teachers who participated in the MLC model of professional development gradually shifted to include the use of concrete materials, problem-based tasks, questioning, and allowing students to explain their thinking both verbally and in writing. One of the teachers noted in her refl ective journal that the two ideas she focused on in her teaching were questioning techniques and asking her students to explain their thinking in writing. “I realized that I needed to question the children more often to find out their level of understanding. Another idea that I walked away with is the importance of having the students write about what they learned. I have incorporated these two things in my daily lessons, and the students have no problem explaining in writing now.”

An excerpt from a second grade teacher’s reflective journal is another indication of the impact the program made on the teachers’ practice. She said:

I feel the TLQP Mathematics program has helped me much in reevaluating my teaching. I think the one big idea of the program was to accept that students come with prior knowledge in math and to use that to help them learn new concepts. Another big idea is to allow the students time to express what they know about the subject, as opposed to just teaching it cold. The impact it had on me was that I began to pay more attention to my questioning throughout my instruction instead of giving a set of rules to follow. I had gotten to the point in my teaching that I was trying to cover a lot of material in very limited time. This meant giving more step-by-step instructions for the students to follow. This has brought me back to good teaching practices of helping the students make meaning of the subject for themselves. I also have the students dialogue with each other instead of working independently. This has helped the students become more engaged and interested in math.

Students’ Learning

Students’ learning was measured using a variety of methods. Their performance on the state test was compared to their peers with similar or stronger backgrounds, but who did not participate in the program. Also, their performance on the state test was compared to students’ performance from the previous year. The teachers used the latter data to fi nd out if the reformed teaching method promoted by the program impacted students’ performance. I consider these measures informal since other variables that were not controlled initially may have contributed to students’ performance. However, we found that the fourth grade students who participated in the program had approximately 25 percent more students performing at levels 3 and 4 (4 being the highest) when compared to an advanced class that did not participate in the program. In one of the fourth grade classes, the students at levels 3 and 4 increased from 50 percent to 93 percent, with only two students at level 1, when compared with the students from the previous year with the same teacher. In fact, the principal asked, “Dr. Stemn, what did you do with Mr. Drew (pseudonym)? Because this is the fi rst time his class has had more than 40 percent of the students performing at level 3 since I became the principal of this school.”

One can understandably argue that the methods used to measure students’ learning did not necessarily follow the conventional research methods. However, it is undeniable that there was gradual growth in the students’ learning and teacher instructional method. I was thrilled when a fourth grade student demonstrated to the rest of the class how 99 x 5 can be solved by multiplying 5 by the 9 in the ones place and recording the 45, and did the same thing with the 9 in the tens place. He organized the result horizontally as 4545 and then added the two middle digits and got 495 as his answer. This process tells a lot about what the child knows and was able to do in terms of number sense and computational fl uency. Yes, this method works all the time. It is a horizontal organization of the traditional vertical method of multiplication.

I strongly believe that if we teach mathematics for profi ciency, students will do well on tests and learn mathematics with understanding. They come to realize that mathematics makes sense and that mathematical concepts are interconnected. As Hiebert (2009) reminds us, “teaching is a complex, intellectually demanding skill. It will improve only through the hard work and unrelenting work of teachers who study their practice and improve it over time” (p. ix). I believe that my role as a mathematics teacher educator is to provide a leadership role in collaborating with teachers over a sustained period of time.

Stemn Education and Research Project (SERP)

The second major project that I have been working on is the Stemn Education and Research Project (SERP). The goals of SERP include, but are not limited to:

  1. Assist in making high-quality primary and intermediate education accessible to all children.
  2. Contribute to improving teacher quality through preservice and inservice programs.
  3. Assist students with scholarship.
  4. Build a model K-9 school that focuses on mathematics, science, and technology education with the hope of extending it to a full elementary and secondary school.

For the past two years, I have been providing instructional resources particularly in mathematics and science to schools in Maryland County, Liberia. This past winter, I spent three weeks providing professional development workshops for inservice teachers in the Harper School District. In addition to the six hours of mathematics workshop training, I worked with classroom teachers in three different schools, modeling and co-teaching lessons based on research on best practices.

SERP also donated 150 microscopes and other mathematics and science materials to East Harper Elementary and Junior High School (K-9). My ultimate goal is to build a contemporary K-9 school with the plan to expand to a full high school outside of Harper City in Maryland County, Liberia. This model school will have mathematics, science and technology as the major focus. Currently, East Harper Elementary School is housed in a small building that was once occupied by The Group of 77, a program for physically disabled students. The program is now requesting that the building be returned.

As a result of fi nancial contributions from the faculty and students of Hofstra’s School of Education, Health and Human Services in the amount of $1,700, SERP was able to award scholarships to 30 students, which included the purchase of school uniforms and supplies for the 2009- 2010 academic year. Also, some faculty members, staff and students donated school supplies. I chose to focus on this region because this is where I grew up and, since the area is not close to the capital city, Monrovia, the county as a whole is not benefi ting from the resources put into education by the national government.

Liberia is emerging from one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and displaced a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. As a result of the 14 years of civil unrest, the country’s infrastructure, including school buildings, was destroyed. In addition to the work of SERP, I am exploring the possibility of Hofstra University- University of Liberia relationships.

The Noyce Scholarship Program

Another project I am involved with, along with my colleague in the Mathematics Department, Dr. Behailu Mammo, is the Noyce Scholarship Program for Mathematics Teaching at Hofstra University. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation (award # 0934755) in the amount of $898,976 to run for four years. The grant will allow us to recruit and provide a total of 16 scholarships to undergraduate mathematics students, particularly those from underrepresented groups within Hofstra University and from community colleges, to major in mathematics and secondary school mathematics teaching at Hofstra University. Each student in the program would receive $20,000 a year for two years. For each year they receive the scholarship, they will have to teach in a high-needs middle or high school for two years. Hofstra is partnering with Hempstead, Westbury, Roosevelt, Brentwood, and Uniondale School Districts in implementing this grant.


References Ball, L., Hill, H., and Bass, H. Knowing mathematics for teaching. American Educator 29 (Fall 2005): 14-46.

Hiebert, J. (2009). Foreword. In Stein, K., Smith, M., Henningsen, A., and Silver, E., Implementing Standards-Based Mathematics Instruction: A Casebook for Professional Development (3rd ed.), ix-xi. VA: NCTM Publication.

Ma, L. (1999). Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000). Principles and Standards for School Mathematics.

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