SIDNEY — There is no longer the situation of an accelerated math student having to wait for classmates to catch up, at least not for sixth graders at West Elementary in Sidney.
Teachers Amee Hicks and Morgan Meier provide a math program that allows the students to set their own pace with the understanding that not everybody learns at the same rate or in the same ways. Differentiation learning has allowed the students to grow their skills over the course of the school year.
Hicks had already been splitting her math students into two groups, then three groups as she recognized the difference in how each student learns. With the backing of principal Gene Russel, the new program was put in place four years ago at West Elementary, Sidney’s grade school for fifth and sixth grade students.
The program is constantly being tweaked to make it fit best. On recent winter math tests, 70% of West Elementary students met their growth goals.
“The kids all work at their own pace,” Hicks said. “They can have a live lesson or a pre-recorded video lesson. They work through listening to a lesson and taking notes. They have a ‘prove-it’ (worksheet) after they take notes that proves they listened to the material. If they have that correct, then they can move on to homework. As soon as they finish that with a mastery score of 80% or above, they move on. If they get below 80%, they get a re-do, because in life, my goodness, it takes some of us a longer time (to learn).”
Hicks said the students are taught that not everyone learns at the same pace, but processing speed doesn’t necessarily equate to intelligence. The program allows that flexibility for students.
At the same time, it creates additional challenges for the teachers, who may have a student in class at a Level 7.2 while others are at, say, 11.5.
“We have kids in chapter seven,” Hicks said. “Our goal is to get through chapter 10 by the end of the year, and I have kids in a bonus situation in chapter 14. It’s just amazing.”
Hicks and Meier have set up a group of collaborative learners and a help center in the room so students who may be struggling with a concept can ask classmates for help understanding.
“We’ve talked about how to guide without giving answers,” Hicks said. “We’ve talked about supportive behaviors like patience, positivity, empathy, and it’s just been an amazing thing to watch how kids are able to learn skills to help them with their jobs, help them with life, and, of course, the math skills.”
Having students in so many different places on the learning path presents a different set of challenges for the teachers.
“At first, I was terrified,” Hicks said. “I thought, ‘If I’m not out in front teaching, what am I going to do?’ I was so terrified, but I’ve discovered I’m 10 times busier doing this because I am helping kids with exactly what they need at exactly the right time. I don’t have any students waiting for a lesson or trying to figure out what to do next or waiting for help. I am just all over the room, helping, helping, helping.
“I think the craziest part is the grade book, because it is just all over the place, which is OK. The grade book is such a small part of learning. We really want kids to gain mastery and confidence in their math skills.”
Some students grasp the concepts quickly and move through the materials rapidly. Others take a little more time, but they’re not allowed to simply stay at a lower level.
“We do have to have deadlines because otherwise you might have kids who would never leave Chapter 2,” Hicks said. “Everybody is really supportive in helping one another to keep moving and be encouraging, which is our empathy piece.
"I really like that (because) we’re not just getting kids through sixth grade math, we’re helping kids see their valuable contributions to their classmates, and, hopefully, that will translate to their job situation as adults.”
While some students are chewing through the materials and racing forward quickly, others are more measured and may take more time to process what they’re seeing.
“I have a student who is almost the furthest back in our grouping, but this student gets 100% on every single quiz and test,” Hicks said. “I think that’s an amazing reflection of taking your time and having patience in your learning. Yes, you need to be a patient teacher if you’re helping, but what is a patient learner? That’s someone who really takes time to understand.