High school math teacher Kelly Gomez notes how the concepts she learned in her master’s degree programs have helped her move away from traditional ideas of teaching math, and given her the skills to implement positive changes in the classroom.
Kelly Gomez’s high school mathematics classroom has changed a lot over the years. Walking into her first class years ago, it wouldn’t have looked much different from the typical classrooms you see in high schools across the country: rows of desks, all facing the teacher with little interaction between students.
All that has changed through time, education, and experience, as Gomez has developed herself professionally and gained further insight into the different ways students are able to learn math.
“I have this kind of desire I know I can always make something better,” Gomez said. “I can’t really settle for what I’m doing. I know if it works it can stay, but things can always be improved with different kids.”
This desire and need to actively improve upon her teaching and classroom management skills has spurred Gomez to earn two different master’s degrees. With a master’s in instructional improvement and a master’s of arts in teaching mathematics, Gomez has learned to constantly reflect upon her teaching practices.
Learning math together
Kelly Gomez’s unique classroom structure allows her students to collaboratively work through math problems in a group setting. Why does this prove so effective?
- Small groups provide a forum
- Students can discuss ideas, make mistakes, and offer constructive criticism
- Mathematics problems have solutions that can be objectively demonstrated in a group setting
- Grouping students allows them to find multiple approaches to a math solution
- Talking, listening, and explaining math concepts in a group leads to learning those concepts
Source: Small-Group Cooperative Learning in Mathematics by Neil Davidson
During her first year teaching, Gomez enrolled in a program for instructional improvement with many teachers from across the educational spectrum. This program wasn’t math-focused, but Gomez notes that much of her teaching style and presentation of material stems from her experiences in the program.
One particular class that Gomez didn’t expect to be so beneficial was “Writing throughout the Curriculum.”
“I was the only math teacher and I thought, ‘Man, I’m never going to be able to use this,’ Gomez said candidly. “It ended up really showing me how important communication is in math. It made you really look outside the box to implement totally new ideas that normally you wouldn’t think to use.”
As a first-year teacher who was also in a master’s program, Gomez had the opportunity to talk about challenges she experienced in the classroom, and discussed ways of addressing those challenges with her master’s classmates. By bouncing ideas off each other on a daily basis, all teachers in the program were able to practice reflective teaching, where they constantly considered how their actions would affect students, and how they could improve upon those actions.
“A lot of times, first-year teachers just get bogged down just by the content, but this forced us to look at the whole big picture of successful teaching,” Gomez said. “We constantly got to implement things that we were learning and we had to try things out. You had to constantly create and try the new things for yourself.”
Gomez says after her first year of teaching, she tried out different ways of teaching mathematics, but it wasn’t until her second master’s degree in teaching mathematics that she truly grasped the ideas of just how to effectively implement these new teaching ideas.
A master’s in teaching mathematics fully focuses on advanced concepts in mathematics, and giving teachers the tools to help explain those concepts to students. Gomez says her program helped her understand better ways to communicate mathematics, including more outside-the-box thinking.
It’s these “outside-the-box” ideas that have helped Gomez adjust her classroom throughout the years. One of her students’ favorite aspects of her mathematics classroom is that Gomez has gradually broken down what she says is the “typical” classroom structure. Instead of rows of desks facing her, her students work in small groups in tables, where they are able to discuss and work through mathematics problems.
“Early on, I wanted my kids to be collaborative, so I moved the desks and rows out,” Gomez explains. “I guess I had only experienced learning math in one way, so then you know, my first year I was trying out different things, and then when it came to actually changing the way that math was taught, that change really happened with my second degree.”
Gomez describes moving her students into groups called “pods.” Each class, Gomez assigns her pods different daily problems. Then, instead of showing her students lots of problems and giving them lots of examples, Gomez briefly gives background on a topic and let’s her students deconstruct and solve it.
“Instead of a classroom where everyone faces the board, it’s a lot more of them asking each other questions before they ask me,” she said. “Then they can hear responses from their peers and get to work on communicating math better themselves instead of just hearing it. They understand concepts deeper than if they just listen all the time.”
Gomez’s pod system gives students a sense of ownership over their learning. She says it helps to motivate her students more, especially since they present their answers not just to her, but to their classmates and friends as well.
“While I still do direct instruction for part of the class, they realize that they’re going to have to talk every day in class about math, and be able to answer questions from small groups of people,” she said. “They’re not just writing down notes from me. I think they have more curiosity and interest in math instead of just the procedures of step-by-step things to do.”
Watching her students enjoy math has been one of the biggest benefits Gomez say she has seen from her master’s degrees. By implementing many of the techniques she’s learned over the years, she says her students have approached the subject much more open minded.
“They constantly are teaching me new things, and they have such great ideas for how they want to learn,” she said. “And that’s one thing that I like hearing from them – getting feedback from them about what they’re enjoying. Because if they’re enjoying learning, then they’re going to learn more.”