Elizabeth Seery stands to the side of her second-story, second-grade classroom at Betsy Ross Elementary School, watching her 14 students warm up with math practice on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Students are tasked with figuring out what 82 minus 56 equals, and can use any strategy they deem most fitting, including referencing a hundreds chart, regrouping the equation, subtracting from an open number line among other methods.

“We’re always trying to be very efficient,” Seery tells the class, urging them to use the strategy that most effectively solves the problem. After about five minutes, students partner up and explain their strategy to their partner. Classmates Lawrence and Jake volunteer to come to the front of the class and use an overhead projector to explain how they solved the problem. Lawrence used a number line to solve his problem — subtracting 56 from 82 in increments of 10 and then two — but made a mistake at the end.

“You want to use a tool, or are you OK?” Jake asks Lawrence, helping him solve his problem.

“I like how you picked friendlier numbers,” said his classmate Nora, referring to his use of easy-to-subtract numbers like two and four. “I like how you didn’t just do ones, you did two and four.”

“Are mistakes a big deal?” Seery asks her students, who immediately respond by yelling, “No, they’re proof that we’re learning.”

Seery’s method of letting students guide instruction is part of a new teaching strategy Betsy Ross staff are employing for the first time this year, an approach that differs markedly from how math, science, English and art were taught at the school a decade ago. Staff came together to update their methods to reflect the new state standards, which require students to explain their process for solving a problem, rather than simply offering the correct answer.

“Defining it kind of helps give us that identity and ownership for the staff. They’re able to identify it and it’s their own and that’s the key. It’s our approach. It’s not just an approach — this is how we approach it at Betsy Ross School and it kind of builds a camaraderie,” said Principal Bill Milnamow, adding that defining the strategy also helped staff talk to each other and to staff across buildings about how they teach, which standardizes expectations. Milnamow was unsure if other schools in the district had similarly defined new teaching methods.

“Clarity was key for the staff; that was a big part of it,” he said. “It also helped everybody understand that we’re in the same boat, so the teachers now know what the expectations are, not only for themselves but for everybody in the building.”

About 10 years ago, inspired by the state’s adoption of next-generation science standards, Betsy Ross teachers started analyzing how they were teaching reading. Four years later, they looked at how they were teaching math. And three years ago, teachers started reflecting on how they were teaching science. But this year is the first year Betsy Ross staff came together to redefine their entire approach to teaching.

“In class we ask the kids to explain their reasoning, and explain how they did this, and we did the same thing with the staff. Doing that helped explain our approach to teaching,” Milnamow said. “We had a lot of deep conversations about our approach to teaching when creating this document, just like we did in the classroom. So what the students are doing, we as a staff did as well.”

Betsy Ross teachers employ cognitively-guided instruction, an approach that guides student thinking on solving the problem, rather than simply pushing one strategy to come to the answer. Students are given opportunities to share with and learn from their peers, and the teacher’s job is to listen and question students based on what she sees and hears.

“If you were to go back 10 years ago, what we were concerned about is, ‘can the kids answer the questions correctly?’ and that was the understanding across education,” Milnamow said. “If they can come up with the correct answers, then we don’t care how they got it, and they came up with the answer, so they must know it. What we realized is that they can come up with the correct answer but they really don’t understand how, and that was a part of the shift.”

This approach, he said, should increase state test scores, since under the new test system students must explain their answers rather than simply giving the correct one. This approach also caters to students of all levels, he added, since “instead of going for easier problems for the low kids, and hard problems for the high kids, they all worked on the same problem. But the strategies they used got more complex as they went up.”

James Elder, D91’s director of innovation instruction, said this approach also aligns with the district’s Positive Behavioral Intervention System, a disciplinary system that focuses on behavioral consequences, including rewards for good behavior as well as punishments for bad.

“The approach to teaching develops out of a philosophy of how students learn, and that learning is an integrated social experience,” Elder said. “We don’t just learn about science in isolation, or math in isolation, but there’s a philosophy about how students are learning that content and how it makes the most sense, that’s really authentic and applies in real-life situations where students can make connections with their own experiences and bring that into the classroom and then build on those experiences.”

He noted how safe students felt in Seery’s classroom, referring to students’ praise of each other’s work, acceptance of their mistakes, and gentle advice to one another on how to solve the problem.

“That is an experience we want all of our students to have and that to become more of a common experience across all the way through eighth grade,” Elder said. “When they get into that mathematics classroom, whether they are in second grade or they’re working on algebra in eighth grade, that is still the expectation for students as far as what their role is in the classroom.”

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com