In a recent conversation with Ally Heide, a math interventionist from Newell Elementary School in the Upper Freehold school district, we dived into the challenges of math education.
Ally, with over a decade of experience, shared valuable insights into the transition from traditional teaching methods to more interactive and student-centric approaches.
The following is a summary of that discussion. Hope you enjoy!
Hi, Ali, how are you?
I’m doing well. How are you?
I'm doing very well to begin. Would you mind just introducing yourself for people that don't know you and that might be listening to this?
Sure. My name is Ally Heide and I’m a math interventionist at Newell Elementary School in Upper Freehold school district. I taught fourth grade for three years and then I moved into an interventionist role and I’ve been doing that for seven years now.
Wonderful. Can you describe the district, Upper Freehold, just for people to know?
Our district has about 500 students in the elementary school. Our district has one middle school and one high school. We’re located in central New Jersey, and we are mainly a suburban, rural suburban area. Is that enough of a description?
That's fine. So, obviously today we're going to talk about math, right? What was happening at that moment in the district when we met a year ago? What were you experiencing math-wise
So we met at a perfect time actually because in our district, we had been making small changes to our math program. As interventionists, we saw in our students that there was a real lack in number sense especially. We’re also seeing that some of the topics that were being taught in the classroom weren’t able to be applied in other situations. So we had started making small changes, incorporating more number sense routines and trying to incorporate more math conversations into our math lessons.
Then about three years ago, we made a big shift to move away from the whole group or the “I do, we do, you do” format for our math lessons. We made a switch to Math Workshops, which opened the doors to a lot of really great math conversation. Our teachers were able to see more small groups, and math really became more of an experience for our students, a meaningful experience. They were more encouraged to work through games as opposed to just practicing on paper. They were encouraged to work more in partners and in small groups. We saw a great shift in our students’ enjoyment of math.
But the piece that was missing was a program to help support what we were trying to do in the classroom. The program that we were using before was very procedural and it wasn’t really getting to the heart of what we needed, which was a shift in thinking for our students and for our teachers as well. They needed support that we weren’t getting with the program that we were currently using.
So when we met you, it was the perfect time because we felt like we had a lot of movement in a lot of areas, but the program really needed to change.
That makes a lot of sense, so the idea was: you had taken significant steps towards a student-centered model, and in the process of doing that, you realized that you needed a more systemic approach to be able to support it and succeed in that change. Essentially you thought that the current core curriculum that you were using was not delivering on that promise.
That’s essentially what awakened the need to say, “Is there any other program that actually will help us better in doing this?” That could support our teachers more than them relying on pulling their own resources from one place or another so that they could be more consistent in their approach.
What was the main feedback from teachers at the time?
Our teachers are amazing and made many changes to switch to Math workshop. They loved hearing that the students loved math and enjoyed hearing more math conversations. […] However, they felt frustration that the students weren’t able to apply things that they’d taught when they moved away from that concept. Teachers sometimes questioned their effectiveness as a result.
Switching to students, what were you seeing in the classrooms from their perspective?
With the switch to workshop, we saw more enjoyment of math and less anxiety, but still a strong reliance on procedures. We wanted to support more of a conceptual understanding and give our teachers tools to help students retain information over the long term.
So in short, you felt the switch from procedural to conceptual was not yet happening, despite more enjoyment and conversation in the classroom?
I'd like to understand firsthand from you. After the experience that we've gone through -a short pilot in the spring- and the implementation now that it's been going on for a month and a half, how would you say Innovamat supported this specifically? Do you think it has provided an answer so far and what positive change have you seen in this short amount of time?
Our pilot looked different from the other schools’ pilots. Innovamat was still very willing to cater our short pilot to the situations our teachers were in and what we could handle. From the very beginning, Innovamat was very involved, even though our pilot looked different from those in other school districts. We were impressed right away with how visible the team was in our school and how much communication we were able to have.
That carried over into the rollout at the beginning of this year. Once we made the decision, it started in May and June of last year; we really wanted to have our teachers trained as much as possible before the summertime. We were offered opportunities throughout the summer if teachers wanted to take advantage of it. It’s been amazing to know that you’ve been so involved with all our questions and concerns. It’s neat to see our teachers forming relationships with you as well. That’s unheard of; never before in our experience would we have had a relationship with a math program. It’s like a new world for us to be able to have these conversations with you, to offer suggestions, and sometimes those suggestions are taken. Sometimes you explain this is why we’re not going to follow through with what you’ve asked. That’s been a great learning experience for us as well.
Would you believe that with the experience so far, we are supporting and improving that conceptual understanding?
It’s still early, but hearing the students engage in the content without it being spoon-fed to them has made a big difference. It’s exciting to see kindergarten through fourth-grade lessons and to be able to see where learning is happening that’s going to translate into upper grades. It’s really exciting, we see how this knowledge is going to build.
Let's dive into the process that we followed. We met one day, and then from there, we met with your math committee for three hours, which is untraditional. After that, we decided to pilot for eight weeks in a short version. You piloted several programs and ended up deciding on Innovamat. How was that experience for you in each of these steps?
We started researching programs, originally looking at 12 programs including the one we were currently using. Then, we created a rating scale in order to be consistent in each of those. We narrowed down to three and did a short pilot on all three. Then we narrowed it down to two, Innovamat being one of them.
The teachers were able to talk to the team representative at all times. The message of Innovamat was consistent, which we were so excited to hear.
Walk us a little more into the specifics of that breakdown: So first 12 alternatives. How do you go from 12 to 3? I want to know what were the key things that made you move forward in each step of the way because I believe different things happen in the process. Why decide to give us three hours to run a workshop? And then why piloting? And then why actually picking us considering that we were the only non-American organization and curriculum?
The things that were really important to us were: we wanted a program that all of our students could use, whether they were in the resource room, whether they were receiving in-class resource, whether they were more on our advanced level, we wanted everyone using the same program. And so you check that box right away.
We also wanted a program that could help support our teachers in their own math understanding. We wanted our teachers to be able to empower themselves, to feel more confident in the classroom. And you guys do a beautiful job of empowering our teachers to feel more comfortable as a math learner themselves and then that translates into their teaching. Another thing that was really important was just the ease of use of the program. So a lot of the manuals that we looked at were pages and pages that our teachers were never going to use, so two pages was mind-blowing for us. and a simplified and easy to use two pages. You consistently offered us the things that we needed to see that made a lot of sense.
Why would you trust a company that's based in Spain outside the US to deliver on, on everything? That's always a concern right? What gave you the confidence to go with a non-US organization at the end and, and also like to take the risk because I think it's, it would be naive to think or say that there's no risk, right?
I think if I was asked this question, maybe even a month ago, I would have said something like, well, math is universal. It doesreally matter what country it comes from. But the more I think about the question, the more I realize that I really appreciate having a company from a different country come to the United States. Some of the questions that you ask have really given us pause and caused us to reflect and analyze why we do some of the things that we do. And is it really as important as we think that it is?
So your outside perspective has caused us to rethink and analyze some of the way we do things. And sometimes upon reflection, we see, oh, this is really important and this is the way we want this to be. […] We think: why are we doing it this way? This is a great question. So it’s caused us to grow because your perspective on our country’s education is a little bit different. […] I think that was a bonus that we didn’t anticipate going with your company. And I also have to say, again, being able to talk to some of the creators and developers of the program to hear their own motivation for wanting to create a program really changes the way that I invest myself in it. So some of those big box companies, I’m never going to meet one of the authors because there are 75 of them. The personal investment that you have placed in our school, makes me feel more confident that this is going to be successful.
When you were talking about consistency before, what do you mean exactly? Consistency in the messaging about the kind of education that we're trying to have, the kind of math education, vision and principles that we're trying to bring forward? Or were you thinking more about the things like the feedback that we've been able to gather throughout, you know, the piloting and like throughout all this process and take it into account for, you know, making changes that are based and adapted to the US?
When I was first speaking about consistency, I meant more the underpinnings of your program. So those things that are foundational and solidifying your program, those things have been consistent throughout, you have also been very consistent in your support for us. And you know, when various grade levels kind of ask the same question, no matter who they ask, a lot of times the answer is consistent.
When various grade levels kind of ask the same question, no matter who they ask, a lot of times the answer is consistent. But what I meant was that no matter at the beginning, the message was the same, no matter who we were talking to. And it was a message that we really needed to hear right at that time.
That makes a lot of sense. And let me ask you the following, what next year in New Jersey we have new standards. We all know they are minor changes but they are official now and there are some changes. Does that generate concern on your end? So now here we have a company that doesn't know about New Jersey, perhaps that's not true, but how do you feel about this? Does this generate any concern?
No, absolutely not. For two reasons, the first reason is that your company was probably more aware of the anticipated changes even than we were. So I’d read the wording, but your company was quick to read the wording and analyze that wording, which was fantastic. One of the changes that were made that I’m really excited about is the de-emphasis of speed and the clarification of the word fluently, which actually aligns very well with Innovamat. So I’m really excited that the standards are shifting to a thought process that you already have in place. So I think that reaffirms that consistent message that we’ve been hearing from you since the beginning, that’s wonderful.
I want to finish with an open-ended question. There is something that is really important to me and I wanted to ask you, could you share the most touching or beautiful moment that you have seen in the classroom since the beginning of all this? And you want me to pick one if you had enough time to have some of those, which I guess you have because you've been really close to teachers.
It’s really hard to choose. As an interventionist, seeing a student of mine feel confident in the classroom and excited to share their thoughts during an activity wins for me every time. A lot of my students tend to be quiet and shy away from interacting in the classroom, especially my older students because they’ve had years to feel like they’re not good at math. And so in many of the lessons that we’ve had with Innovamat because everyone has an entry point, my students can feel confident in the classroom. That for me has been the biggest win so far.
That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. Is there anything else you would like to share? That you think could be relevant for other administrators, educators that are thinking about making a change in math instruction at the elementary level.
I would have needed more time to think about this. For anyone who’s thinking of making a change in math, it’s hard to put a price tag on student enjoyment and excitement for math. And that is not to say that math always has to be fun. But when our students start to have buy-in, then we start to see growth. So whether that’s with one program or another, when our students start to feel more invested and successful, then we can take them places. So that’s probably what I would say.
That makes a lot of sense. Thank you so much!
Our talk with Ally Heide has highlighted how crucial a supportive Math Partner is for districts. These collaborations empower teachers with confidence and the necessary tools, while also placing emphasis on students. With the right guidance and an openness to external insights, an effective math learning experience for students is ensured. The key lies in adaptability, collaboration, and a genuine love for the learning journey.
Hope you enjoyed this episode of the blog!