April 09, 2015 | Matt Kucinski

Since 2005, Calvin mathematics professor Jan Koop has secured $1.7 million in state funding to improve math teaching in local elementary schools.

If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake Jan Koop for an elementary school teacher or administrator. Koop, a mathematics professor at Calvin College, spends a lot of time in local elementary school classrooms.

“I don’t seem to be able to quit,” said Koop.

Committing to creating change

Koop recently received her seventh Improving Teacher Quality Grant from the Michigan Department of Education. With nearly $1.7 million in funding from the state over the past decade, Koop has worked to improve the way mathematics is taught in 21 elementary schools, through more than 300 teachers.

“All the research shows that sustained professional development is the way to make a change,” said Koop, who is dedicated to working with teachers and schools for the entire 18-month grant period—something teachers have appreciated over the years.

“I think it [the lengthy investment] made it a cut above most of the others [professional development opportunities],” said Carole Stefan, a third grade teacher at Godfrey-Lee elementary school, who went through the program back in 2007. “The instructors came in and saw what we were doing, not to evaluate, but to provide feedback, to look at what we were doing, to see what they could share with someone else, to share with us. It was ongoing.”

Pursuing new pedagogy

Koop’s commitment goes beyond the time she spends with the teachers to include the well-researched approach she takes. She empowers teachers to dig beyond the numbers and facts to discover deeper understandings of mathematical concepts. And with the state of Michigan adopting new academic standards for mathematics in 2015, Koop says it is ever more important for teachers to take a more inquiry-based approach to teaching math.

“Students need to be able to make a good argument, use academic vocabulary, look for repeated reasoning,” said Koop. “We are now getting students to conceptually understand math. We’ve learned from being in classrooms that we had to figure out [in some cases] how to use outdated materials to get good inquiry going. The content has not changed, but the methods have.”

“I went in [to the 2013 cohort] wondering if our current curriculum was the best, wondering about what was up and coming, what was applicable to our children,” said Lael Mulder, principal of AnchorPoint Christian School in Wyoming, Mich. “But, going through this process I saw that what we have is what we need to stick with, but we need to adapt it a bit to see what is necessary for students right now.”

Cultivating creativity

While past participants sing praises of the program, new schools and teachers are coming on board. Beginning this summer, teachers at Meadowlawn and Southwood elementary schools in Kentwood, and Legacy Christian in Grand Rapids will begin their 18-month journey through the program. The training includes two weeklong workshops held in consecutive summers and a total of five days of instruction during the school year. The teachers also receive in-school coaching in their classrooms and have opportunities to join book clubs and grade-level planning groups.

Koop says the goal of these grants is to help educators be more successful in their classrooms by empowering them to prepare lesson plans that promote student engagement, by encouraging them to take a big picture approach by moving beyond simply working off checklists to helping students understand concepts more broadly, and through instilling in them confidence to try new things in the classroom.

“To hear that language has to be involved in math, all teachers would say ‘what a different concept to think about, having conversations instead of rote writing,’” said Lael Mulder, principal of AnchorPoint Christian School in Wyoming. “We are now going through a process instead of just trying to find a product,” she added.

Empowering teachers, schools

Both Mulder and Stefan said that going through the program built camaraderie and consistency among math teachers in their schools.

“Typically with PD [professional development] you meet with teachers from all over,” said Stefan, “but we were all working together and had a common goal, and we can now see that across grade levels and even with new teachers here now, those of us who were there will still talk about common themes, common vocabulary, things like that.”

“We would not have had any type of professional development like this as specific as this was for these teachers,” said Mulder. “And, so the resources that we were given, they are going to continue to use, the conversations they are having, they shared with their colleagues what they’ve learned and how they want them to incorporate these concepts in their classrooms.”

Koop says that while the success of the students is hard to measure [because of the amount of student turnover year-to-year in the schools she is working in], that pre and post-testing of teachers has shown significant progress.

And, the teachers agree.

“It’s really impacted what we do here,” said Mulder. “We are excited to see how it follows our students. We made changes in all grades because of what we learned. The teachers are excited to get the next group of kids in that have learned this way. It’s fun to watch that process.

“And being able to share with our parents that we have gone through this has been beneficial as well. They always have questions about math curriculum, and this is helpful, to let them know that we’ve partnered with Calvin College and we’ve learned a great way to teach math, what’s beneficial [to students]. We say here’s what we’ve learned, come in and see how we’re doing it. For parents to know that we have teachers going to PD in the summer through this grant we’ve been able to participate in, it’s been impressive to them.”

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