DMPS Elementary School Teachers Become Authors to Help Kids

mathematicstextbook2College professors have long labored with the mantra “publish or perish” dangling over their heads like the Sword of Damocles. Maybe they teach a few sections in their discipline but otherwise they’re expected to do research, make breakthroughs, document them and publish their findings, to the great credit of the distinguished colleges and universities that provide them with the opportunities.

But K-12 school teachers? Their days are full to overflowing with lesson-planning and, well, teaching. They put the research of the collegiate types into practice. Professional development demands that they keep abreast of best practices. But doing their own research and writing it up for the benefit of colleagues; who has time, let alone the insight, for that?

Let’s see, Molly Sweeney (Downtown School) and Jennifer Johnson (Jefferson Elementary) of Des Moines Public Schools, to name two. They co-authored Transforming the Task with Number Choice, a text for teachers aimed at elementary math instruction in grades 1-3 that examines the importance of number choice in problem-solving. The book’s preface puts it this way: “In this book, we suggest that the work of teaching elementary mathematics with and through worthwhile tasks is more manageable—and more accessible to all students—through a focus on number choice. We define number choice as the strategic use of numbers and number combinations in the context of problem-solving tasks. This book provides examples of and strategies for using number choice, based on our teaching experiences and research, to ‘engage and challenge students’ with problems that ‘can be approached in more than one way.’”

At the risk of over-simplifying, this new math sounds like a primer for teachers on how to make their lessons more flexible and adaptable to the various levels of understanding they confront in their classrooms.

Sweeney and Johnson co-authored the book with Natalie Franke of the Waukee Community School District, Tonia Land, an assistant professor of mathematics education in the School of Education at Drake University and Corey Drake, now of Michigan State University. When the project began Land and Drake were both at Iowa State University. So the work rises to a professorial level after all.

“The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is our publisher,” said Sweeney. “At the national conference in Boston, they sponsored a book signing. It was exciting to be with other authors. This process took over one year to complete, so we were ecstatic when our final draft was accepted for publication.  I am very proud of our book and the work that we accomplished.”

The NCTM says “Transforming the Task with Number Choice presents a uniquely powerful tool…”

Sweeney and Johnson first attracted NCTM’s interest in their work at a previous national conference.

“After presenting research and instructional practices at a national conference NCTM expressed interest in publishing our work,” said Johnson. “Our careers at DMPS provided the foundation and encouragement from many administrators and colleagues to pursue excellence and innovation. This book is a reflection of not only our evolving classroom practices but the importance of the art of continuous learning.”

Math is often regarded as a rigid field of absolutes. But the two new authors say that’s a misperception.

“I love the art of teaching math and doing math,” said Sweeney. Note her use of the “A” word. “Mathematics is a place where creative ideas can flourish.”

And Johnson believes the principles embodied in the book have broader applicability than just teaching arithmetic to youngsters.

“Although this book focuses on mathematics, the careful attention given to posing effective and probing problems impacted my questioning techniques in other content areas,” she said.

How would these cutting edge teachers sum up their contribution to elementary math education?

“Children are naturally curious about how to solve problems,” said Johnson. “Allowing children to view themselves as mathematicians has a powerful impact in their educational journey.”

That’s kind of a modest way of saying that teachers do, when you think about it. Especially ones who devise “a uniquely powerful tool.”

To read more about the book, or purchase a copy, click here.

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