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Q&A with a Curriculum Fellow: Nick Homa

Curriculum Fellow Nick Homa
Nick Homa is an instructional advisor for grades K-8 in Shelby County (TN) Public Schools, which serves Memphis and its suburbs. An alumnus of Teach For America (TFA), he previously served as a 6th grade teacher for two years. After piloting Eureka Math in 2016-17, the school district is fully implementing the curriculum in all schools from Pre-kindergarten through Algebra 1 during the 2017-18 school year.

Why is curriculum so important?
It's the blueprint for getting the standards out there in an engaging way. Otherwise, it’s just a long list of objectives and textbooks filled with a long list of problems. Good curriculum like Eureka creates an engaging learning experience in each lesson. Teachers without strong instructional practices often say, “Do problems 1-3 with me, then 4-9 on your own.” That isn’t very engaging. You want a curriculum that tells a story, like watching a movie or TV show, so one can ask “what comes next?”

What do you like best about Eureka Math?
It offers so many problem-solving strategies and scaffolds the key concepts. Most of my students the past two years were two or three grade levels behind. The tape diagram, in particular, transformed how they engaged with the content, making math so much more applicable and approachable for them. When students hit a wall I always tell them to draw what they know. From there, it makes more sense to insert values and units to get to the solution.

Given how far behind they were, we set a realistic goal of having 70-80 percent of our students meet or exceed their projected score, up from 40-50 percent the previous year. But quite a few students did even better, growing two or three grade levels in a single year.

What other strategies did you find most helpful?
I mainly used tape diagrams during my time teaching 6th grade. But now that I’m working with all grade levels, I’m seeing many different strategies, such as place value charts, area models and number bonds. The key is helping students compose and decompose numbers. If they can do that, they’ll understand multiple strategies and be able to make the math work for them. And in some cases, decomposing is a lot faster than using the standard algorithm most people know. It’s really made me rethink how I approach math.

How did Eureka impact your own teaching?
I could see more of the connections. I am now able to address the higher-level questions in Bloom’s Taxonomy such as comparing and contrasting different ways of solving problems. I hadn’t thought about that previously. I was also more engaged in the procedures, but not asking “why?” And there was a lot more student discourse in my classes.

Why did you apply to become a Curriculum Fellow?
I wasn’t a math major in college, but my work for TFA kindled my interest in the subject and I was spending a lot of time studying the Common Core standards, looking for different ways of doing the math. I found that when teaching lessons, I was adding a lot of my own notes about instructional practices, especially how to scaffold the concepts. I’m excited to be part of the writing process and am hoping I can add some useful ideas on scaffolding. That is, what do we do with students at both ends, those who are way behind and way ahead?

Why is it so important for teachers to help revise curriculum?
Teachers – and students – are the users of these materials. We have to write for the teachers who are teaching the kids every day. If something doesn’t work, it's easy for teachers to fall into old practices, which defeats the purpose of the coherence of the standards.

We need to help answer common questions. How do I teach a lesson? Am I supposed to be reading a script (no!)? What level of student discourse should there be? When do I release control and have students take more charge of their learning? How do I scaffold lessons? We don't want to tell teachers how to do their jobs, but suggesting some instructional practices can help.

How are you taking back what you’re learning to your district?
The first step is that teachers need to know the math. I’m helping them study the Progressions Documents and we are having a lot of discussions about coherence. I’m trying to push them to higher levels of understanding of the math, then helping them prepare and customize lessons to their own teaching styles.

The district is supporting a lot of professional development from coaches like the math advisers and myself. We’re working with teachers one-on-one and in small groups. We’re also visiting classrooms to help teachers take notes and reflect on their practice. We’ve started to do some videotaping of lessons, and we’re helping principals relearn what to look for in classrooms during observations.

Any advice for other teachers who are just starting to use Eureka?
Be willing and open to giving it a chance. Have a growth mindset. This curriculum doesn't tell you how to do your job, but provides excellent tools to do it properly. You just have to trust in these resources.

What’s next for you?
I would like to continue to support teachers with implementation of the curriculum. In a perfect world, I’d have a class of my own, I’d be working with other teachers, and I would be working with Eureka.