Written By: Bridget Looney, First Grade Teacher
I first learned about Exemplars math performance tasks in 2005, when I was teaching third grade in a New Jersey independent day school. We were looking for a way to supplement Everyday Mathematics.
What impressed my colleagues and me most about Exemplars was the way the tasks engaged the more confident math students. These students had a tendency to quickly complete independent classwork without taking time to really think about what they were doing. Exemplars performance tasks encouraged them to persevere and further challenge themselves. Sometimes, just reading and understanding what the problem was asking them to do was an interesting challenge. At the time, we found that the tasks designed for K-2 students in the Differentiated Math collection were sufficiently challenging for most of our primary grade students. We reserved the grade 3-5 tasks for the strongest or most mature students in third grade.
Since then, I have taken Exemplars math performance tasks with me from school to school as I have moved forward in my career, fulfilling different positions. As I have changed roles, I have also shifted the way I have used Exemplars. Not surprisingly, Exemplars math performance tasks have proven to be useful and versatile.
As the Lower School Curriculum Coordinator in another New Jersey independent day school, I found that Exemplars can be used as holistic assessments of student learning to help reveal otherwise hidden gaps and limitations in classroom teaching or in the school curriculum. Any well-designed math program will include formative and summative assessments; yet because these assessments tend to be directly tied to lesson and unit objectives, they are unlikely to reveal what students can or cannot do outside the scope of program goals. In other words, students might only be successful or unsuccessful in math within the context of the school curriculum. For example, when used alongside a highly teacher-directed mastery-based program, Exemplars can offer students opportunities to show how they might use their tacit knowledge and creativity in problem solving. I have found that when math problems are connected to real life, practical learners often shine in ways that a more abstract math program might not tap into.
Like standardized tests, Exemplars can point out patterns of strength and weakness in teaching and learning. However, when selected and used strategically, Exemplars can measure a much broader range of mathematics skills, habits, and understandings than commonly used standardized tests are able to do. In turn, Exemplars can be used to build up the weak areas they reveal. When applied in this manner to help evaluate teaching and learning, Exemplars performance tasks empower teachers to make quick adjustments to curriculum and practice as needed and can also inform long-term school-level curriculum development conversations.
Using Exemplars Remotely
Currently, I am teaching first grade as a leave replacement teacher in a suburban public school that is working tirelessly to maintain a high level of instruction under the unprecedented conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. We use a hybrid learning model in my district, but there are times that we must go completely remote.
Teaching a traditional textbook-based mathematics curriculum remotely is a challenge, especially with young children who struggle to read and understand directions independently and are still learning how to take cues from the text features of workbook pages and worksheets. I have, of course, already turned to my trusty old friends in my time of need.
When I share an Exemplars task on my screen, ask students to apply parts of the Exemplars problem-solving process, and then invite students to display their work over the video conference on their portable dry-erase boards, formative assessment becomes easier. Having students present their work over the screen also promotes a sense of community around math.
In addition, Exemplars tasks provide a welcome contrast to the school district’s highly-structured and scripted base math program. It is through the Exemplars tasks that my students are freed to use their creativity and find their voices as young mathematicians. Not to mention, the carefully crafted, kid-friendly, and sometimes humorous wording of the Exemplars tasks seems to resonate with my first graders in a different way than the base math program language does.
I seem to have found a balance between the two resources. The base program works as a way to introduce new concepts and skills with the concrete, lockstep focus that some learners need at first, and the Exemplars math performance tasks provide the rich opportunities for more connected and individualized application of math understandings that raise student thinking to the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
I am not sure where I will go from here. I am a temporary faculty member filling a need and a Ph.D. candidate in teacher education who is nearing graduation. In a way, I feel like Dorothy spinning inside of that tornado, unsure of where I might land. Exemplars math performance tasks will most certainly make a showing, in some capacity, wherever I do end up.