Workshops enable math teachers to hone skills

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — School may be out for students, but it's about to be back in session for two dozen elementary school math teachers who want to improve their mathematics fluency.

The two-week Pennsylvania Math Initiative (PMI) professional development workshop is co-led by faculty in the College of Education and the Eberly College of Science and begins Monday, July 17, on the University Park campus. It also has been held or is planned at other Penn State campuses this summer.

The program is designed for K-5 teachers with the goal of empowering teachers to implement their mathematics curricula with confidence, build productive mathematical practices and improve teaching methods.

"College instructors are dependent on high-quality teachers in the elementary and secondary grades," said Andrew Baxter, lecturer in mathematics at Penn State and director for PMI. "Their students will become our students, so we want to offer these kinds of professional development courses to help teachers improve their mathematical fluency so they in turn can provide the highest quality of education."

The daily content of the two-week-long workshops is split between mathematical knowledge, taught by Baxter and Matt Katz, lecturer in mathematics, both in the Eberly College of Science; and classroom practices, taught by Fran Arbaugh and Andrea McCloskey, both associate professors of mathematics education in the College of Education.

The first week's theme is "Math as a Second Language," which focuses on how the rules of arithmetic fit together to form a cohesive system and how a teacher can encourage students to think mathematically. In the second week, participants continue to deepen their mathematics background with "Algebraic Thinking and Proportional Reasoning." This workshop makes clear how mathematical concepts from elementary grades support the mathematics that students encounter in middle school and beyond.

"The content in PMI and the way we teach our undergraduate education students is parallel," said Arbaugh. "One of the things we focus on in PMI is the Standards for Mathematical Practice from the Common Core State Standards – Mathematics document. These eight mathematical practices are the kinds of activity that students should engage in when learning mathematics, and they are included in the PA-Core for Mathematics, the state curriculum standards for what students should learn in mathematics in grades K-12. In PMI, we also focus on eight mathematics teaching practices that research has shown have a positive impact on students' learning of mathematics."

The workshops are well-received by those who attend.

"I don't think there could have been a better class or course to help me prepare for teaching fifth-grade math for the first time," said one workshop participant. "I now have a better understanding of how to help build the students' math foundations up conceptually, rather than just teaching them procedures to memorize. I am going to try to implement more meaningful questions in my classroom that will help the students to become better problem-solvers."

Assessments completed by past participants have shown that the workshops have a significant positive impact on teachers' mathematics knowledge for effective teaching. One participant from 2016 shared, "Prior to attending this training, I did not enjoy teaching math. After attending only one week, my entire math teaching outlook changed and it is now my favorite subject to teach." 

The workshops for 2017 are already filled, but PMI expects to offer similar workshops for the summer of 2018. PMI is hosting 95 teachers from 37 different school districts this summer. The program has grown every year since the first workshop in 2013, which hosted eight participants from three districts.

PMI faculty believe in the importance of supporting participants so that they have the time to implement the ideas from the workshops. To this end, the workshops are free for participants and their districts. Participants also receive travel compensation, local lodging and a stipend, so they do not feel financial pressure to find other employment during the summer. To ensure the quality of the workshops, each workshop is limited to 24 participants. The workshops are funded by a combination of funds from Penn State, the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded Earth and Space Science Partnership, and the Foundation for Enhancing Communities.

Founded in 2012 by George Andrews, Evan Pugh professor of mathematics, the first PMI workshop focused solely on mathematical content. In 2013, the PMI partnered with the College of Education to add content about the teaching of mathematics.

PMI workshops are based on the model created at the University of Vermont — the Vermont Mathematics Initiative (VMI) — which has operated continually since 1999. A six-year study of students of VMI-trained teachers revealed significant growth in student achievement.

Visit the PMI website for more information.

Last Updated July 14, 2017