Summer School: A Great Time to Try Blended Learning in Middle School Math

When I was the Math Curriculum Coordinator for a K–12 district, I had the privilege of being a co-principal investigator for a three-year, $1.5 million federal Math–Science Partnership grant designed to improve the pedagogical content knowledge of middle school mathematics teachers. Partnering with another school district and a local university, we created an innovative professional development opportunity in which teachers worked directly with students in a unique three-week summer program called the Mathematicians in Residence (MIR) Academy. Each summer for three years, we held the MIR Summer Academy which included around 40 teachers and 200 students. Though our program wasn’t a blended learning initiative, schools or districts interested in testing out blended learning could use this Academy as a model from which to build a blended learning pilot or program.

Defining Learning Outcomes

As with any school design plan or initiative, building a blended learning model should begin with establishing the learning goals. The overarching goal of the MIR program was to improve middle school math teachers’ content knowledge as well as their comfort and ability to create true communities of mathematicians in their classrooms. We decided to focus on number concepts and algebraic reasoning, and used materials from the Young Mathematicians at Work series and the Contexts for Learning series by Cathy Fosnot and colleagues. Given that teachers were learning how to build mathematical communities, it was important to involve students.

Bringing in Experts

Having defined the learning outcomes and identified the necessary support materials, we next needed to choose facilitators for our program. We aimed high and invited Cathy Fosnot herself to facilitate the professional development (PD). We were thrilled that she accepted, and that she was excited about the unique design of our program—especially the inclusion of students. Over the course of the three years, our teachers also had support from her colleagues and co-authors Maarten Dolk, Janan Hamm, Kara Imm, and Bill Jacob. This amazing team of facilitators was uniquely equipped to not only help teachers more deeply understand mathematics, but also assist teachers in learning to build strong mathematical communities within their middle school classrooms.

Scheduling and Structures

For anyone interested in testing out blended learning in a summer school setting, the structure and schedule of our three-week MIR program could be a starting point. First, we only met Monday through Thursday because we decided that having Fridays off during the summer would be a welcome benefit to both the teachers and students who were choosing to participate. During the four days of the first week, students weren’t involved. Instead, Fosnot and her colleagues modeled the same mathematics units and lessons with teachers that the teachers would be using with students in the second and third weeks. Because of this design, teachers were directly immersed in the mathematics content and were able to see how the resident experts facilitated a mathematical community for the teachers as students.

Including the Students

Grant funding enabled us to use buses to bring students to the MIR Academy during the following two weeks. Students entering Grades 6, 7, and 8 were placed in classrooms of 12 to 15 students with 2 to 4 teachers. Small class sizes and multiple teachers in each room were necessary to accomplish the goals of the grant. It also impressed parents and surprised students because it was a much more personal learning environment than they were used to. The MIR sessions were three hours each day—from 9 a.m. to noon—which meant there was plenty of time to build mathematical communities, tackle challenging math problems, engage in rich conversation, and present conclusions and solutions to their class and other classes. After students left on the buses at noon and teachers had lunch, the rest of the afternoon was spent in grade-level specific groups facilitated by Fosnot and her colleagues. Every afternoon, teachers reflected upon their successes and failures from earlier in the day and made class plans for the following day. By design, the PD was always personal and relevant for teachers.

Funding, Hardware, and Software

For programs like this one—or any blended learning initiative—sustainable funding is always a key consideration. For the MIR program, the $1.5 million grant enabled us to not only bring in outstanding PD facilitators and include hundreds of students, but we also provided supporting technology tools for teachers to use in the classroom. With a laptop, document camera, and LCD projector, teachers were well equipped to immediately highlight student work in the classroom for discussion. At the time, there were few online resources for teachers to use to engage students in meaningful conversation. Now there are far more digital tools and manipulatives like the free DreamBox Teacher Tools available for PreK–8 teachers who want to use number lines, arrays, and other useful representations that help students make sense of concepts, model their solutions, and communicate their thinking. Given the learning outcomes of the MIR Academy, many of these digital tools would have enhanced conversations between teachers and students during class had they been available. Also, had the MIR Academy been a truly blended learning model, students could have accessed the adaptive software at home as a way to complement the classroom and continue personalized learning outside of three Academy hours.

Other Summer Blended Models

Depending on access to funding and technology, there are other ways to try blended learning in your own summer school circumstances. Some districts have daily two-hour blocks for math in the summer, which are ideal for setting up a station-rotation blended learning model. In that amount of time, students could spend around 45 to 60 minutes in a whole-class mathematical community, and 30 to 45 minutes using digital learning software while the teacher works with individual or small groups of students. The best model in any given situation will depend on access to hardware and choosing software that aligns with rigorous learning goals and enables students to be self-directed, and to receive immediate feedback and scaffolded support from the software itself.

Results: Improving Classrooms and Critical Thinking

By the end of the MIR Academy, there was a significant change in how well teachers understood middle school math content and how well they could create a mathematical community where students thought critically, constructed arguments, and critiqued the reasoning of others. That success stemmed from having a clear focus on learning outcomes, strong collaboration among teachers and with students, and the strategic use of classroom time and technology depending on the learning goals. These are key ingredients for success when implementing blended learning models: focused goals, strong collaboration, and strategic technology use.

Tim Hudson

VP of Learning for DreamBox Learning, Inc., Hudson is a learning innovator and education leader who frequently writes and speaks about learning, education, and technology. Prior to joining DreamBox, Hudson spent more than 10 years working in public education, first as a high school mathematics teacher and then as the K–12 Math Curriculum Coordinator for the Parkway School District, a K–12 district of over 17,000 students in suburban St. Louis. While at Parkway, Hudson helped facilitate the district’s long-range strategic planning efforts and was responsible for new teacher induction, curriculum writing, and the evaluation of both print and digital educational resources. Hudson has spoken at national conferences such as ASCD, SXSWedu, and iNACOL.