Spotlight on the Profession: Grace Kelemanik

In this monthly column, we speak with a notable member of the mathematics education community about their work and their perspectives on the teaching and learning of mathematics. This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Grace Kelemanik, who will be presenting at this year’s Saskatchewan Understands Mathematics (SUM) Conference in Saskatoon.


Grace Kelemanik

Grace Kelemanik works as a mathematics consultant to districts and schools grappling with issues related to quality implementation of the Common Core State Standards. She is particularly concerned with engaging special populations, including English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities, in the mathematical thinking and reasoning embodied in the eight Common Core standards for mathematical practice.

Kelemanik is a secondary mathematics Clinical Teacher Educator for the Boston Teacher Residency Program, a four-year teacher education program based in the Boston Public School district that combines a year-long teacher residency in a school with three years of aligned new teacher support. Prior to BTR, Grace was a project director at Education Development Center (EDC). She was lead teacher of mathematics at City on a Hill Public Charter School in Boston where she also served as a mentor to teaching fellows and ran a support program for new teachers. Grace is co-author of the book, Routines for Reasoning, about instructional routines that develop mathematical practices.


I would like to begin by asking you a little bit about your background. Could you describe your journey to teaching mathematics, and then teaching future mathematics teachers? What (or who) sparked your passion for the field of mathematics education?

My mother will tell you that she always knew I would become a math teacher. She reminded me of this when, after entering college as a music therapy major and exiting with a degree in finance, I decided to go to graduate school to study mathematics and education.  She said she always knew when there was a math test, because our phone would “ring off the hook” and she would listen while I spent countless hours explaining math concepts to my classmates. If she had shared this insight with me earlier, I would have come to math teaching sooner, but then I never would have met Mark Driscoll.

It is because of Mark Driscoll that I am a teacher educator. When I moved to Boston and started grad school at Boston College, I was in desperate need of a job. Mark, a project director at Education Development Center (EDC), was looking for research assistant to work on his newly funded Urban Math Collaborative project, and he hired me. I am still not sure why he took a chance on me, but that decision changed the trajectory of my life. Working with Mark (and others at EDC), I became steeped in the math reform movement of the 80s. Working in urban settings, I became acutely aware of the disparity in our education system. It was clear to me that great teachers – even those working with limited resources—could have a profound impact on students. My compass was set. I would become an urban math teacher, and then a teacher educator.

 

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (Gray, Taie, & O’Rear, 2015) suggests that as many as 17% of new teachers in the United States may be leaving the profession within their first five years on the job. Some estimates suggest that the figure may be similar in Canada, although the relevant data is scarce (Karsenti & Collin, 2013).

In your current position, you work with new teachers as a secondary mathematics Clinical Teacher Educator for the Boston Teacher Residency Program (BTR). [The BTR is a four-year teacher education program based in the Boston Public School district that combines a year-long teacher residency in a school with three years of aligned new teacher support.] In your view, why is the teacher turnover so high (and why might this be a worrisome state of affairs)? What kind of support do you feel new mathematics teachers need during their first few years of teaching to increase the chance that those with great potential do not leave the profession?

“Teaching is a hard job to do well. It requires deep content knowledge and a strong belief that all students can learn. But teaching is not magic, nor is it an art form—teaching is a learnable practice.”

You noted a US Department of Education statistic that 17% of new teachers in the US leave the profession within their first five years. The statistics for urban teachers are even more grim, with 50% of all urban school teachers leaving within the first three years.

Teaching is a hard job to do well. It requires deep content knowledge and a strong belief that all students can learn. But teaching is not magic, nor is it an art form—teaching is a learnable practice. Developing a practice takes time and support. Unfortunately, time and support are more often than not in short supply for novice teachers. We have expected novice teachers to develop ambitious teaching practices by spending a relatively large amount of time studying the theory of teaching, but a relatively little amount of time actually practicing teaching. What is more, the limited targeted teaching support we provide teacher candidates all but dries up when they become teachers of record. So it is no surprise that the hard work of teaching becomes crushingly hard in the first few years, as too many underprepared teachers struggle—all too often on their own—to get their teaching “legs”.

“If new teachers weave instructional routines into their practice, it will provide them some solid ground on which to stand while they continue to build their practice.”

Teaching, as Magdalene Lampert says, is a complex endeavour. It requires you to attend to a multitude of things at the same time, including the content you are teaching, how students are making sense of that content, interactions between students, the flow of the lesson, individual student learning needs, how to manage classroom materials, and more. For a beginning teacher, this requires an especially large “bandwidth,” and can be overwhelming. Accordingly, a critical support for beginning teachers is something that helps them manage the complexities of teaching. We have found that Instructional Activities Structures (IAs) or instructional routines fit that bill. In the BTR program, we have used IAs to help “routinize” classroom interactions. These instructional routines bring a predictable flow to a lesson so that the teacher (and students!) can spend less time worrying about what’s coming next and can use more of their bandwidth listening to student ideas and helping them make sense of the mathematics. The instructional routines also simplify lesson planning, because they hold the design of the lesson constant in terms of how students will interact with the content and with each other. This allows the novice teacher to focus their planning time and energy on the mathematics and how their students will make sense of the math.  If new teachers weave instructional routines into their practice, it will provide them some solid ground on which to stand while they continue to build their practice.

Instructional routines are also a powerful tool for collaboration. When entire departments or grade levels use the same instructional routines, it provides a common frame for collaborative lesson planning. Because every teacher knows “how the lesson is going to go,” they can jump right in to discussing the mathematics, anticipating student responses, and supporting individual student learning needs. Instructional routines support the work of math coaches for the very same reason—the routines hold the structure of the lesson constant so that the teacher and coach can focus on the critical interactions between the students and the content.

Over the years, I have watched as these instructional routines have become like “old friends” that our BTR grads bring into the classroom with them to lean on while they take on the hard work of teaching.

 

With respect to students’ needs, you are particularly concerned with engaging special populations, including English language learners, in the mathematical thinking and reasoning embodied in the Common Core standards for mathematical practice. Although some see mathematics as a “universal” language, it is clear that English language learners (or “emergent bilinguals,” the term advocated by Rochelle Guitierrez in her most recent ShadowCon session) need additional, or different kinds of support in the mathematics classroom. How are these students’ needs different, and how can their teachers support them in learning mathematics in a non-native language?

You are also particularly concerned with helping students with disabilities succeed in mathematics. It is, of course, difficult to generalize, as students with disabilities have distinct and individual needs, but could you describe your philosophy about engaging and supporting such students in the mathematics classroom?

I am going to answer your questions about English learners and students with disabilities together, because it turns out that there is a great deal of overlap between the research-based supports for English language learners and those for students with learning disabilities. Both groups benefit from mathematics being placed in authentic, meaningful contexts to which they can relate, the use of multimodal techniques, regular opportunities for language use, and scaffolds for increasingly abstract thinking. I’m a firm believer of teachers focusing on the overlap, not just because these same supports will help a wider range of learners, but it also turns out—and this is quite powerful—that these supports also align with the approaches to doing math championed in the Common Core state standards for mathematical practice! As my colleague and coauthor Amy Lucenta says (See Amy’s 2016 NCSM Ignite Talk at https://youtu.be/M6MTNzs4J44), “There is a symbiotic relationship between the math practices and supports for special populations. If we teach the math practices authentically, we’ll be supporting special populations, and if we support special populations with integrity, we’ll be teaching the math practices.”

 

In your sessions with mathematics teachers (e.g., during your Ignite talk at the 2015 NCTM Annual Meeting and Exposition – https://youtu.be/oTmYi1Gsa70), you stress the importance of mathematical practices and of guiding students in learning to “think like mathematicians.” Could you give an overview of the mathematical practices advocated by the Common Core State Standards (and the NCTM) for our Canadian mathematics teacher audience, and why you advocate focusing on practices rather than (exclusively) on content?

“We can’t “algorithm” our students into being ready to solve the problems they will face as adults. So we have to teach them how to think.”

I believe that teaching students to think like mathematicians is critical because, as Al Cuoco, a colleague of mine from EDC is fond of saying, “The technologies that are going to create the problems that our students are going to have to solve have not yet been invented.” This means that we can’t “algorithm” our students into being ready to solve the problems they will face as adults. So we have to teach them how to think. The CCSS math practice standards, I believe, is our clearest articulation to date of what it means to think (and work) like a mathematician. Therefore, we must teach the practices!

In the Ignite talk you referenced and in our book, Routines for Reasoning Fostering the Mathematical Practice in ALL Students (Kelemanik, Lucenta, & Creighton, in press), my coauthors and I argue that not all math practices are equal—that some take the lead in student thinking, while others support that thinking. We argue that three math practices in particular, Reason Abstractly and Quantitatively (MP2), Look and Make Use of Structure (MP7), and Look for and Express Regularity in Repeated Reasoning (MP8) define three distinct ways of thinking mathematically. We believe that that if students develop these avenues of thinking, they will become powerful problem solvers.

 

Our readers will likely be aware that you will in Saskatoon this November to present as a keynote speaker at our very own Saskatchewan Understands Math (SUM) Conference. (We can’t wait!) We don’t want to spoil the punchline, but could you give our readers some insight into what you will be discussing during your sessions?

Sure! My plan is to share with you our framework for making sense of the standards for mathematical practice, to unpack the three avenues of thinking, and to introduce folks to how instructional routines can be leveraged to develop these practices in all students, including English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

 

Thank you, Grace, for taking the time to share your experiences and your expertise. We look forward to continuing the conversation at SUM in November!

Ilona Vashchyshyn

References

Gray, L., Taie, S., & O’Rear, I. (2015). Public school teacher attrition and mobility in the first five years: Results from the first through fifth waves of the 2007– 08 beginning teacher longitudinal study (NCES 2015-337). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED556348.pdf

Karsenti, T., & Collin, S. (2013). Why are new teachers leaving the profession? Results of a Canada-wide survey. Education, 3(3), 141-149. Retrieved from karsenti.ca/archives/10.5923.j.edu.20130303.01.pdf

Kelemanik, G., Lucenta, A., & Creighton, S. J. (in press). Routines for reasoning fostering the mathematical practice in all students. Heinemann.

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