Eureka and Middle School Math · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Valuing Teacher Expertise

This summer, I had two opportunities to work with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).  Out of conversations came an opportunity for me to share some of the curriculum work I have done with 7th grade math colleagues over the past five years when we have been working with Eureka Math and Illustrative Math.  I will be presenting in January, but preparing for this presentation has already pushed me to do some thinking about how to describe the work that my colleagues and I already do and why.

DESE recently released information from the CURATE project (CUrriculum RAtings by TEachers).  As I reviewed the feedback, I was not surprised to find that the same concerns my colleagues and I have had (and have been trying to share) for the past few years were identified in the reviews:

  • Survey respondents tended to find the available practice problems insufficient. One explained, “There is often not enough skill practice that students need to become fluent in new skills: e.g., adding and subtracting integers.”
  • Materials frequently prescribe a tool rather than asking students to choose one (SMP 5).
  • Conversation centers more on teacher-to-student questioning than on peer-to-peer conversation. One survey respondent reported, “Almost all of the lessons are based on the teacher being the center of the lesson. Students find it easy enough to stay low and let others do the work.”
  • Survey respondents report that materials are text-heavy and difficult for struggling readers and English learners to access. One response explained that “questions are often convoluted, containing extraneous information and vocabulary that requires scaffolding.”
  • Pacing can be difficult: as one survey respondent reported, “The curriculum moves quickly and doesn’t provide any time for reteaching. There are so many lessons that if you take time to reteach a topic you will not be able to finish the curriculum.”
  • Though mid-unit and end-of-unit assessments are included, “there are no strategies or assessments that are specifically for the purpose of assessing prior knowledge” (EdReports).

As I looked over these comments in the CURATE project, I had to laugh:  these were all things that my various colleagues and I had identified over the years we’ve been using Eureka (and recently adding in Illustrative Math).  The pacing, the language, the over-emphasis on text, the over-use of teacher-centered instruction, the expectation that students were working at grade-level…we’ve been aware of these concerns since half-way through our first year of “implementing Eureka Math with fidelity,” as we were charged to do.  It was clear to us that Eureka, as written, wasn’t a match for our students functioning below grade level and we’ve been working to address those concerns ever since.

How did we do that?  Well, most of what I’ve been writing about in this blog has been an on-going reflection on identifying an area of concern, based on observing our students and using data from assessments of all kinds, and then attempting to identify the cause of the concern so we could address it.  How did we address the root causes?  We made notes sheets, templates/graphic organizers, videos; we re-organized our approach to presenting content, whether through the “By the End of” structure and/or a more formalized Math Workshop approach, adding in more card sorts and card matches, and so on.

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As I reflect on where we are as a 7th grade math team this year, however, what remains constant for me is that I would never have felt as comfortable and empowered to make those changes if I had not been exposed to the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  Without UDL, I would never have thought I had a responsibility as a teacher to seek out and make available options for my students; instead, I would have frog-marched all of my students through a curriculum that clearly has concerns and weaknesses.  I would never have been empowered to believe that I could provide options for support for students, making notes sheets and vocabulary resources to support students in working with the text-heavy questions that we find in Eureka and even in Illustrative Math.

Although we still give very conventional assessments, we also support different paths to success on those assessments, especially through the use of retakes and reteaching.  The paired practices of retakes and reteaching in particular allow me to constantly create individualized experiences for my students, without making myself crazy coming up with a million options–all students take the same Skill Assessment and have the same retake, but their performance on each drives what reteaching experiences they have.  UDL and retakes/reteaching also keeps me from falling into the trap of designing for students, in the form of differentiation.  Again, UDL saves me here, reminding me that the students need to be in the driver’s seat, need to be the ones identifying what they need and finding their way through the material to the same shared, common goal of mastery of the standards.

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As the Thanksgiving weekend transitions into what looks like a snow day (or two), I find myself grateful, again, deeply grateful, for the messages UDL sends of empowering teachers to step outside of the mandates of a curriculum, to look more deeply at the work of their students, and to value their own expertise.

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