Schools focus on reading, math
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 29, 2010 1:46 PM
Reading and math -- the chief components of the state's end-of-grade tests -- are in many ways the backbone of education in the Wayne County Public Schools.
And as mandates and teaching methods change, local educators are preparing to increase their focus on those primary skills.
This year alone, six area elementary schools have signed on for the "3-D Reading" program introduced across the state by Gov. Beverly Perdue. The five-year grant initiative is designed to improve students' reading and math abilities by the time they reach third grade.
Fremont STARS Elementary School was the first to take advantage of the program, already launched in all 50 states. Starting in January, educators at Tommy's Road, Northeast, Eastern Wayne, Carver and North Drive elementary schools will begin training.
Reading 3-D focuses on fluency and comprehension, with heavy emphasis on assessments throughout the school year.
"This is one-on-one instruction. We always talk about individualization, the assessment lets you know where you need to focus with that child," said Hope Meyerhoeffer, director of the reading and language arts programs for the county schools. "What we're going to be able to do with this program is meet the needs of all students, not just this group or that group."
The approach also links the information to the state's Department of Public Instruction.
"It really takes the work off the teachers, as far as the grading and analyzing the data," said Tammy Wallace, a fifth-grade teacher at Fremont STARS, who trained for the program in the fall.
Another advantage is that students are also given status reports from the outset.
"I make sure they know their reading level," Mrs. Wallace said. "In my classroom and another fifth-grade classroom, we have book clubs. We look at the 3-D reading program, we know where our children are, we have grouped them accordingly."
A variety of techniques and activities are used to focus on building vocabulary and comprehension skills. As early as kindergarten, oral assessments are done on students.
By fifth grade, most students should be able to master basic reading concepts.
"My strategy is to have them read, read, read and do vocabulary. I think it's very important to expose them to the words, the context the words are used in, if they need to draw a picture of the word or act out the word," Mrs. Wallace said.
"If we look at the lower grades, they have to begin reading, looking at phonemic awareness -- start out with individual letters, the sounds, how to write the letter, words that begin with that letter -- and dwell on those for awhile," Mrs. Meyerhoeffer said. "We have five components to teach reading: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency."
The 3-D reading program monitors student's progress while allowing them to set their own goals and chart progress.
"We're very data driven and also very big on setting goals for our students, having them set their own goals -- 'This is where we want them to be by the end of the year,'" Mrs. Wallace said. "We're graphing, so anytime I pull a child back and progress monitor, they get to see if they have improved or not."
While as a teacher, she might have a vision for what she wants a student to accomplish, students can also have a hand in their own education, she said.
"If there's a test, they write what their goals are. They have a reading log," she said. "It holds them accountable so I'm not the bearer of homework and the assignments. They have what I have. The data is right there on the computer."
"Students are being more accountable for their own learning than they have ever been before because they actually see what's going on and understand," Mrs. Meyerhoeffer said.
The program affords immediate feedback, she added.
"I'm not having to grade a test and days later they see how they did. This way, for me to show the children immediately how they did and ask what they can do to improve," she said.
It's a very diagnostic prescriptive program, Mrs. Meyerhoeffer pointed out.
"We haven't had one of those in North Carolina, not like this. We hope to have it in all our schools, but it also involves quite a bit of money to do and the state can furnish money on just so many schools."
Reading 3-D follows a Read First grant, which ended this past year but was similar in practice. The latest grant funding is for five more years but, Mrs. Meyerhoeffer said, a lot can be accomplished in that time.
"What we will do is look at the data and that data will be moved from one grade to the next so the teachers in the next year will know exactly where that child is and they are, so to speak, to pick up and move that child. If the results are the way I think it's going to be, by the time these children get to middle school, there's going to be a vast difference in their literacy skills.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what those results are going to be."
Parents play a crucial role in deciding whether the reading program works. Regular progress reports are given to parents, along with activities to do at home with their child.
"You have to have a relationship with your parents. You just have to know your students and you have to know what they need at whatever time," Mrs. Wallace said.
Mrs. Wallace said she has already seen a shift this year, with her 22 students being more motivated to learn.
"It's very different ... I can't say 100 percent that it's because of this program or my attitude, but I do think that because they're held accountable for their learning, I do know they're responsible for what they learn. I just have to provide the right environment for learning.
"They're intrinsically motivated to do better. They'll ask to read with me to see if they're doing better. How often do children ask to be tested?"
"I'm excited because I really think that maybe this is the approach that we need to be utilizing in the classroom, but in all of our elementary schools," Mrs. Meyerhoeffer said. "This is where I would like to see it move."
Math standards in the schools have likewise changed, with graduation requirements calling for an additional math credit -- with four units now required.
"Our juniors and seniors could get by with three units of math to graduate unless they're in college and university prep," explained Joyce Cunningham, director of math and social studies for the school system. "But starting with freshman of 2009, now sophomores, anybody that's a freshman or sophomore now has to have four units of math."
Jennifer Cochran, a math teacher at Rosewood High School, has been teaching for 13 years. Her first year, she taught eighth grade.
"I think because more is expected, kids know more math now than when I started teaching because it's filtered down," she said.
These days, her classroom features a Promethean board and students can follow along as she demonstrates virtually hands-free, using a graphing calculator.
"The Promethean board got their attention immediately," Mrs. Cochran said.
"Students can actually see the key strokes that she's doing so they'll know they're doing the same thing," noted Mrs. Cunningham. "Students need to be engaged in the learning process. We found that if students have ownership in the learning, they'll usually do better."
Another wave of the future is the way problem-solving is done in a math classroom. Instead of outdated references, relatable examples are given.
"There are a lot of strategies that we can share with students to put in their tool kit," Mrs. Cunningham said. "Even for the other grades, one of the things that makes it relevant, pick something like the cell phone (or) sometimes you let students correct their own problems. I try to put names that the children might know. They love their own problems."
"No. 1, they have got to believe in themselves, get them to buy into what you're doing," Ms. Cochran said. "Let's say there's a formula we're trying to understand -- use a song, even if it's silly."
Recognizing that everyone's learning style is different, she opts for lots of shared activities, pairing up students or having them work in groups rather than always working independently.
"I have also used like a puzzle activity. We call it a jigsaw," she said. "They scatter and form another group where they're the only one that knows the answer and then they'll explain to that group, so in a group you might have six different problems.
"A gallery walk is another one, where they'll be in groups and one person is selected to be the leader of that group and I will let them choose the music and it's like musical chairs -- they'll go to the next problem and I will let the leader go around to check their work."
Educators may model concepts first, but it can be equally as beneficial for students to exchange ideas.
"If they can explain it and it solves the problem, when they work in their groups and they share, that's learning in itself," Mrs. Cunningham said.
"That's the way it is when they get out in the world," Mrs. Cochran added. "When we put them in groups, it helps them understand the team concept."
The bottom line is to engage students, the educators said.
Since math can be a challenge for many, sometimes it's all about overcoming the mental block and making it a more accessible subject.
And, they said, if concepts can be broken down into manageable pieces, students may actually wind up enjoying it.