Teaching to think a top priority

Published 12:01 am Sunday, December 16, 2007

NATCHEZ — When Lisa Lewis’ first-grade students struggled with counting money Lewis knew she needed a better financial plan.

So she collected ideas from her peers at Frazier Primary School and this year, her money, has, well, appendages.

Lewis calls them sticks; some of her students call them eyelashes. Regardless, they seem to be doing the trick.

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“We count money by fives,” she said. “A quarter gets five sticks, a dime gets two and pennies get a dot. The lines really help them when they get a combination of coins.”

Students draw their coins, and their sticks on dry erase boards. And once they’ve successfully counted their dough, the students do what any adult would do — spend it.

Thursday, Lewis was selling pencils to students with the correct amount of coins.

But Lewis’s level of hands-on teaching isn’t anything special anymore. In fact, it’s required.

Teachers in the Natchez-Adams School District are being trained on a new curriculum and a new way of teaching.

Their work is based on Depth of Knowledge levels, and the goal is not just to teach students to count money, but to teach them to compare, relate, estimate, classify and interpret the money they have.

The DOK wheel ranks activities based on the level of thinking behind each classroom activity. Level 1 lessons merely require students to recall what they’ve been taught. Level 2 items involve skill and understanding a concept. Three involves strategic thinking and four, extended thinking.

Lewis ranks her money sticks as a level 2 on the DOK wheel.

That’s two of four levels. And that’s not good enough.

Teaching tomorrow’s adult

A successful curriculum is ever changing.

Today’s children aren’t like yesterday’s, and the state and federal departments of education are constantly rolling out new ways of teaching.

The problem is, no educational expert is quite sure of what the end result needs to be.

“You are trying to prepare them for jobs they’ll face when they get out,” Natchez Superintendent Anthony Morris said. “The challenging thing is a lot of those jobs don’t exist now.”

So schools are left with only one option — teach children to think.

Director of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Tutor’s job is to teach teachers to teach thinking.

“It’s not, ‘Can you find the subject and the verb,’” Tutor said. “You have to see writing examples, projects that take time.”

But many of the teachers in schools today were taught to teach the old way. They can’t drop everything and go back to education school, so the only option left is on-the-job training.

“We have to expect teachers to do a lot of practice,” Tutor said. “There is a system in place for principals to observe and track and make sure (teachers) are teaching at the appropriate grade level.”

But since the state rolled out a brand new curriculum this year without providing lesson plans or worksheets, more than observation is needed.

The district takes advantage of every opportunity to send teachers to professional development classes. They bring in speakers, and they send teachers out.

Teachers who travel are required to come back and share their new knowledge with other district teachers.

Each school also has daily and weekly meetings where teachers in the same grade or subject area come together to share ideas and mentor each other.

And Tutor meets quarterly with teams of five teachers at a time, carrying them through hands-on activities, the DOK levels and other resources.

New tricks

For a veteran teacher set in her ways, the DOK wheel isn’t an inviting one.

Level 4 — extended thinking — requires that every activity challenge students to do things like analyze, synthesize and prove.

And before a student can synthesize, the teacher must.

Administrators know equipping some teachers with the needed skills is a challenge of its own.

“It’s very, very hard,” Morgantown Elementary Principal Fred Marsalis said. “Saying ‘This is the way we’ve always done it’ has to be erased now.”

Marsalis has 42 years in the education business under his belt. But his old methods just don’t work, he said.

“It’s changed tremendously, the way they learn,” he said. “There was a type of thing where the knowledge was given to kids in rote memorization. Now they are in association and hands-on.

“The methods I used would not be acceptable.”

Aside from professional development, and encouraging daily practice among teachers the key to change for the teachers is the same as the change for the students — it’s all in the way you think Marsalis said.

“We are just saying it daily,” he said. “It can work. It can work. It can work. Simply try it.”

At Frazier Primary, second-grade teacher Kathy Green is on board. She’s a member of an online second-grade teachers club that provides her with an endless supply of free, hands-on activities.

And she’s seeing results, she said.

“Children need a lot more now,” Green said. “They can’t stay at their seats and just do an activity sheet. They grew up singing and dancing with TV shows.”

Recognizing that fact and embracing it is necessary, Tutor said. The challenge of providing instruction and curriculum to support ever-increasing standards won’t allow for anything else.