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S2 Ep12: Elementary Approaches with Michael Greenlee & Tracey Ramirez

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

The Charles A. Dana Center is a research-based professional organization of educators that work to dismantle barriers in the education system to ensure all students have equitable access to an excellent education, with emphasis in mathematics and science education. They develop and deliver innovative curriculum and professional learning to help change and support educational systems, structures, and policies. Their purpose is to evolve education systems and curriculum to impact student’s experiences while also nurturing students’ intellectual passions to achieve new levels of success.

Michael Greenlee is a Professional Learning Facilitator on the Mathematics K-12 team at the Dana Center. Michael, a former elementary teacher for over 10 years, brings his experience as a school-based and district mathematics coach to the Dana Center, helping to design, plan, and facilitate mathematics professional learning experiences. Tracey Ramirez is a Professional Learning Facilitator on the Science K-12 team at the Dana Center. She was in the classroom for over 20 years, and was an elementary math and science curriculum facilitator and independent consultant for schools around Texas. Both she and Michael work with schools to ensure that the curriculum resources and materials they use align to state and national standards.

Tracey and Michael talk about their focus at the Dana Center, which is on developing and writing professional learning experiences for teachers and leadership at the system level (school, district, state). They explain the process of taking the needs of a ‘system’ and developing a learning experience based on these needs, that they then deliver to the teachers and leaders in that system to facilitate change in instructional practices, curriculum approaches, etc. They discuss how important it is to take research-based practices and strategies and make them applicable to what teachers do in the classroom every day. Systemic work means not just working with teachers, but the administrators and leaders as well, to make sure the change is across the system.

From their vast experiences with various schools and districts all over the country, Michael and Tracey share some things that schools are doing well, and also some challenges that they see schools still needing to overcome. There has been a big shift in how teachers are teaching math, the vocabulary and a focus on problem solving, which is a real positive. At the elementary level in particular, a big challenge is the lack of content knowledge, from understanding the complexity of teaching students at an elementary level and how to help students learn the content, and implementing brain-based strategies. Tracey mentions that teachers are more willing to take risks in their practice after learning these strategies, but there is often a lack of collaborative planning and time to really look at and analyze student work.

Michael shares the intent behind the professional learning experiences the Dana Center provides. It’s important to intentionally take what they are already doing and tweak it so that they see the benefit of these changes, which helps them want to continue and want to continue to use what they learned. He talks about how important it is to get the teachers believing in what they are learning. Tracey discusses how the Dana Center works with leadership and content to make sure that everyone is supporting the cyclical process for planning, implementing, data collection and then acting upon that data. Systemic change is about including everyone in the process to make sure that changes continue AFTER the Dana Center facilitation ends.

Michael shares some examples of positive things that he sees teachers doing that centers around discourse, such as collaborative talk. He talks about those positive practices and discusses the strategies and structures they try to provide teachers to help them foster deeper discussions around math and science. Tracey talks about how wonderful elementary teachers are at pedagogy, and strategies, but how they really need support around the math and science content knowledge to get deeper discussion and understanding.

There is some discussion about the elementary system and how the time spent on math and science is minimal, which makes the teachers feel these topics are less important and therefore spend less time on these topics. There is the perception that there is NOT a lack of content knowledge in math and science among elementary teachers, which becomes a roadblock when it comes to facilitating math and science professional learning experiences. When there is too much time on processes, and basic skills, we can miss the importance of thinking skills and recognizing the underlying foundations and mathematical relationships that are so important for higher mathematics.

Context is so important to mathematical thinking. Tracey shares ways to think about math and science as a system, and how we are ready for a true integrated elementary curriculum that is built around systems, cause-and-effect relationships, and pattern recognition. The Common Core is mentioned a lot, and how it really focuses on looking for patterns and relationships, and trying to get teachers to teach at a level and a depth that they need to be teaching at. Though it is not perfect, for example Michael shares some pitfalls, such as treating the standards as a ‘checklist’.

Themes/topics explored in the episode:

  • What is a ‘professional learning facilitator?”

  • What does it mean to create systemic change?

  • How are research-based practices translated into practical applications in the classroom?

  • What are some things that are going well in schools?

  • What are some challenges that schools need to overcome?

  • Why is continued support after professional learning so important?

  • How long does true systemic change take?

  • What are some strategies to help elementary teachers increase their own math and science content knowledge to then support student learning?

  • Why do people devalue “elementary” math?

  • What is ‘thinking mathematically’ vs. ‘thinking algorithmically”?

  • What is the Common Core and why are math teachers so excited?!!

  • Why does science get ‘hosed’ in elementary school?

  • How did No Child Left Behind impact what is happening in elementary school?

  • Why are standards so important, especially in science and math?

  • How does good professional development and good curriculum help teachers get to the intent of standards?

  • How do we create change if we are restricted to one-day professional learning or lack of time for professional learning?

  • How do we build content leaders to support systemic change?

  • What is some of the policy work that the Dana Center is doing to impact education at a more state and National level?

  • Are standardized assessments as impactful at the elementary level as they might be at the secondary level?

  • Standard algorithm versus invented strategies - how is this difference life-changing for teachers?

  • How is a teachers’ content knowledge impacting what and how they teach?

  • Why shouldn’t we be using ‘timed’ math assessment or standard algorithms?

  • How does our understanding of doing math interfere with helping young, beginning mathematicians understand and develop mathematical sense?

Links to resources mentioned in the episode:

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