Written By: Phil Sanders, Math/Science Instructional Leader
Plainville Schools has had a long-standing relationship with Exemplars. We have been using their tasks for more than ten years. It wasn’t until two years ago, however, that we really decided to put the Exemplars problem-solving methods to full use. With the Smarter Balanced Assessment, we noticed a lack of growth in our students on the Performance Task. This year, we decided to address this issue. Exemplars was a perfect fit.
Our district started by sending our Math Leadership team to an Exemplars Institute with Deb Armitage. This session gave the team a comprehensive understanding of how to incorporate Exemplars problem-solving methods successfully into the classroom. We learned that we could use the problems in several ways: Teachers could use them as instructional material for students in small groups as well as for whole-class instruction. These problems could also be used to provide formative information to guide the instruction and understanding of how to solve this type of performance task. Most of our teachers, for example, use the Exemplars tasks in the middle of a unit to provide information and then at the end as a summative assessment. The information we gather helps to differentiate our instruction and provides us with intervention grouping for both higher and lower levels of understanding. Our teachers appreciate being able to pick problems that are aligned to the Common Core Standards; students like the problems because they are challenging and allow them to showcase their mathematical thinking and understanding. After a problem has been completed, we usually have a gallery walk, where the students get the opportunity to explain their thinking and use of models.
Exemplars materials were first introduced to teachers during our August professional development. We had teachers at each grade level solve a task and create anchor sets to be used for instruction. To introduce the problems to students, we made PowerPoint slideshows for many of the tasks. These slideshows had interesting pictures, which helped build students’ level of understanding. During the school year, students regularly asked if they were going to see a slideshow for math that day! As the school year progressed, we slowly reduced the reliance on the slideshows as students gained confidence in reading and in developing their understanding of the problems.
Our goal for the past year was to increase student understanding of performance tasks. We saw excellent improvement in students’ understanding of how to break down a problem and model their thinking. I can remember many blank papers in years past when we administered problem-solving tasks. This year we had not one single blank paper! All students were able to find an entry point to begin the task.
We attribute the success to several factors. We feel that grouping students in three different ways has removed the stigma of this type of math problem. Using the small group, paired and individual methods for students to solve tasks provides multiple ways to approach students’ learning needs. We also used the Exemplars anchor papers to show students how problems can be solved in different ways. The anchor papers helped teachers gain a better understanding of the material as well. This year, we dedicated our Math PLC to Exemplars and problem solving. Teachers from each grade level across the district gathered once a month to look at student work and discuss their successes and ways to improve instruction.
We have found Exemplars to be very helpful in meeting our goals.