I used to teach math…

When I first started teaching, my focus was the math.   I carefully read what was presented in the textbook for the students and made sure that I understood the learning goals for the section. I picked out problems from the section for the students to do to practice the skills that needed to be learned. I organized the sections into a calendar to make sure that the learning pace was even throughout the quarter.  I made detailed notes about the material and followed those notes carefully during class to be sure that I covered everything that my students needed to learn. I worked hard to make sure I got the math right.

As I gained experience, I still did all of that, but it didn’t take as long.  I also found that I didn’t need to follow my notes so closely during class time, and that allowed me to focus a little less on the papers in my hands and a little more on the students. My lectures became more interactive and class time become more of a dialog.

I was teaching math!

Moreover, the feedback that I got from students and colleagues told me that I was doing a good job.

Then, about 6 years ago, while on professional development leave,  I had the opportunity to work with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching during the year that Statway and Quantway, collectively known as  the Carnegie Math Pathways, were created. The Carnegie Foundation did not set out to simply develop a new curriculum and supporting materials — research had indicated that it would take more than than that to dramatically improve student success rates in developmental mathematics classes.  Thus, Carnegie created a set of lessons and activities known as the Productive Persistence materials that help instructors equip their students with strategies and habits that support sustained engagement and effective learning.

Hey, wait a minute!  Isn’t that what I already did? What math faculty all over the country had already been doing?  Even when I first started teaching and was more focused on the math, I still spent time helping my students with the math during office hours.  I took class time to remind them about the importance of studying for exams and suggested strategies.  I collected homework each class period to help motivate them to keep up with the work.

Well, as you can imagine the Carnegie Foundation, being primarily a research institution, didn’t engage in this work without first striving to understand the problem.  I’d already known that the sequence of classes was long and that students placing into pre-algebra needed to take 3 classes before they’d get to college level math.  I’d already known that typically 30 – 40% of the students who start a developmental math class would drop or fail the class.  But I didn’t see the bigger picture.  I didn’t know that many students failed to ever enroll in the next class in the sequence.  I didn’t know that only about 1 in 15 of the students that started in pre algebra would ever get to that college level class. “Developmental Math” was were students’ aspirations went to shrivel up and die.

The Carnegie Foundation knew that many dedicated faculty members were doing amazing things in their classrooms to help students to succeed and that is why the Carnegie Foundation brought together community college instructors and leading researchers in fields such as mind set, belonging and stereotype threat to develop these materials. During those months of working with the Carnegie Productive Persistence group, I learned that students are more successful when they feel like they belong.  I learned that students are more successful when they feel like their instructors care about them. I learned why a growth mindset is so important to success.  I learned how stereotype threat can create anxiety that hinders performance. However, I would never get to use any of the materials that I helped to develop, because Foothill is a Statway college and I don’t have a statistics background and would likely never teach that course.

What I didn’t realize is that something magical happened during those months of working on the Productive Persistence strand of the Carnegie Pathways work. I had transformed. I don’t have the Productive Persistence activities to use in my classes, but the way I talk about learning math and the feedback I give to my students has been forever altered — and that is reflected in a dramatic change in my retention and success rates.  I’m not sure I can put into words what changed, or how I’m different in the classroom, but I am.  When I walk into a classroom now, I see my individual students in a way that I didn’t before my work with Carnegie.   The way I interact with them is different.  I strive to know not just their names, but a little bit about their background and story and the events that led them to my classroom.  Math is still what brings us together, but now I teach students.

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