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Unified through learning

UNK shares math strategy with KPS teachers so all students in district may receive same instruction

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Sarah Hawthorne

Sarah Hawthorne explains to a group of Kearney Public Schools administrators what she and her colleagues have learned the past week about KPS’s new math curriculum, Eureka, which focuses on helping students become problem solvers.

KEARNEY — Kearney Public Schools’ new math curriculum focuses less on answers and more on the thinking that goes behind finding them.

So, to learn the why behind the new curriculum, a few teachers from each KPS school spent the past week being students of Eureka.

Through a partnership with the University of Nebraska at Kearney, teachers took a one-time graduate course focused on math instruction with a direct connection to the new curriculum, which the district will start next fall.

“We know that just putting a curriculum in front of a teacher doesn’t change the teaching,” explained Amy Nebesniak, an educational math professor at UNK who taught the Eureka course to KPS teachers. “I wanted to reach out and help and support that underlying understanding of the teaching so teaching could go effectively.”

UNK also waived the course’s tuition fee for KPS teachers. According to Associate Superintendent Jason Mundorf, teachers still had to pay the course cost, and the district provided a stipend to each teacher to cover the cost, equalling $450 per teacher for the six-day course.

Teachers who took the course, who now have a better understanding of the teaching behind the curriculum, then will become teacher-leaders, explaining what they’ve learned throughout the year to their peers.

Sunrise sixth grade teacher Sarah Hawthorne thinks that the new curriculum will be a unifier for the district.

“I think in the past a lot of schools have done different things, and so by bringing in Eureka and learning about the best math teaching practices we are going to unify the district so that every student regardless of what elementary school they’re at or what middle school they’re at is going to get the same math instruction, and that math instruction is going to be based on decades of research and those best math teaching practices,” Hawthorne said.

According to Mundorf, the district chose Eureka because it had some of the highest ratings in EdReports, a system used to analyze different curricula. Eureka also aligned closely to state standards, with no major gaps.

The reasoning behind the curriculum, Mundorf said, also is a positive shift from traditional methods of teaching math.

“Historically, math’s been focused on answers — did you get the correct answer — and what’s also called standard algorithms: Here is a problem, here is a formula or a prescribed way of solving that problem, but there really wasn’t a lot of discussion to the understanding of math behind that,” Mundorf said. “Eureka focuses on understanding the logic and problem solving processes.”

Rather than be focused on learning formulas and algorithms to get the right answer, Emerson first-grade teacher Sara Kucera explained, Eureka focuses on truly understanding the concepts behind the right answer.

“It’s not always about the answer that the student arrives at, and students will arrive hopefully in the ballpark of the right answer in different ways, but that’s all valuable learning for them,” Kucera said. “We’re only truly learning when we’re making connections to what we already know, and we make mistakes and then we understand why that didn’t work.”

The hope is that by learning the concepts behind the math, students become better problem-solvers.

From creating an environment that is more acceptable of failure to focusing less on being a speedy mathematician, Kucera and Hawthorne gave many reasons for why the new curriculum will be better for students.

Now, they’re both excited to see it in action.

“I’m excited to see that students of all levels of mathematical understanding have success and feel more confident and feel better about being in the math class and take away kind of that negative stigma that math has,” Hawthorne said. “I just think this program, and not necessarily just this program, but this shift in our teaching is going to be huge for our students.”



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