Front of the Class: Teaching Math to K-2 Learners

Dr. Drew Polly
Monday, April 8, 2019
Teaching Math to K-2 Learners

Welcome to Front of the Class, a regular series offering an inside look at the Cato College of Education. We’ll travel through the college’s programs, sit in on a variety of classes, learn from the perspective of award-winning faculty, and hear from students as they strive to become the next generation of teachers, counselors and school leaders.

Class: Teaching Mathematics to K-2 learners

Associated Degree Programs: Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education

Professor:  Dr. Drew Polly

Today’s Topic: Rehearsing posing a math routine to Kindergarten and First Grade students

Things are moving fast in Professor Drew Polly’s class. “In Kindergarten, if the error is consistent, we need to identify and address it immediately,” he says, completing an introduction to the day’s activity and breaking students out into small groups. Today, the 2018 finalist for the Bank of America Teaching Award is leading a class on helping children understand numbers and quantity.

At each table, a student acts as the teacher and peers stand in for the young learners. The teacher asks classmates to identify a quantity they saw (“How many did you see?”) and to describe the image (“What arrangement? How did you know?”) It’s a proven routine for encouraging elementary schoolers to think efficiently about quantities. The future educators pose questions and modify tasks based on what they observe and hear.

“The research supports offering a worthwhile cognitively demanding math problem and supporting students with questions rather than directly teaching them how to solve the problem,” Polly says. “Since this approach is often different from how we learned math as a child my class emphasizes learned skills and pedagogies.”

The groups are high-energy. At times, it is almost sounds like an elementary school class, the voices a few octaves lower. Occasionally it’s tough sledding for these teachers in training. “This is really difficult,” one laughs as he finishes his turn leading discussion. “Okay, fishbowl!” Polly exclaims at nearly the same moment.

If things were challenging at the small group level, now students have contend with the same activity while the rest of the class crowds around their table.

“Dr. Polly stops us briefly along the way to guide us and provide input for a question we should ask or what our next step is. Overall, I feel confident and always ready to teach when my name is called,” says student Hayley McNeill.

“The small group work keeps student engaged. The ‘fishbowls’ allow us to dig deep and really analyze possible teaching moves that candidates could or should make based on the students' responses,” Polly explains.

“It’s one of my favorite classes because of this interactive and fast-paced class style. It energizes me and gets me excited about becoming a teacher,” says student Madeline Clark. 

The challenge, Polly says, is making sure that future educators spend enough time thinking deeply about and applying research-based strategies with students in course meetings and clinical experiences. 

All of this is aimed at empowering education students to meet one of their primary challenges: developing and executing a personal teaching style.

“Being in a college class and going over what I ‘would’ do vs. actually being in an elementary classroom is very different. Dr. Polly’s class definitely prepares me for these real world class engagements,” Clark says.

During the class, a trio of Polly’s Cato College of Education colleagues floats about the room. Professors Paola Pilonieta, Tracy Rock, and Paul Fitchett are here to observe

“We are trying to establish a culture of talking about, examining, and reflecting on each others' teaching,” says Polly. “With the emphasis on practice-based teacher education I have been inviting people to observe, and the experience has been very beneficial.”

As the activity wraps up, Polly leads a full class discussion on challenges and takeaways. Individual students offer reflections on what they learned for the benefit of their classmates. Together, the class is making progress toward their ultimate goal.

“Teaching math used to be a daunting thought,” Clark says, “But with Dr. Polly’s class, I have become confident in my ability. I have developed effective teaching skills and critical thinking skills I can use to better my own classroom one day.” 


by: Wills Citty