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Q&A with a Curriculum Fellow: Mackenzie Price

Curriculum Fellow Mackenzie Price
Mackenzie Price teaches Grade 5 and 6 math at Copper Mill Elementary School in Zachary, Louisiana. This year, she is a Eureka Math Curriculum Fellow and is splitting her time between her school and the team working with Eureka Math teacher–writers to revise the curriculum. Copper Mill, a Grade 5 and 6 school, serves approximately 850 students. It’s a Title I school, and 75 percent of its students receive free or reduced lunch. The school adopted Eureka Math in 2016.

How did you become a math teacher and then a Curriculum Fellow?
This is my 11th year teaching. It’s all I ever wanted to do. From the time I was five years old, I knew I would be a teacher. The truth is, though, I was a poor math student. I took remedial math in high school and college and later dropped math courses in college. When I got into my content courses in my elementary education program at Louisiana State University, my teachers finally taught me foundational mathematics. It was conceptually based, and it really opened my eyes. I fell in love with math. 

So, I shifted gears and decided I wanted to teach elementary math. I’ve since earned my National Board and middle school math certifications. I’ve taught math in Grades 4 through 8 and would love to teach high school mathematics at some point. One of my mentors at LSU told me about the Fellows program. 

Why do you think you struggled with math as a child?
It was taught in a very procedural way. You were supposed to do all these steps, and you weren’t supposed to ask why. I always wanted to know why. I still do; maybe that’s why I love math so much. But growing up, if you asked why, your teacher would get upset with you. Now, I know that may have been because he or she wasn’t able to answer my questions.

How is Eureka Math different from other curricula?
As soon as I learned about Eureka Math from an LSU teacher who was helping to write the first version of the curriculum, I was hooked. The curriculum focuses on understanding the math being taught, not just doing the steps. A great example of this is the shift in how we teach fraction concepts to students. 

When I was a child, I was taught only one way to compare the size of two or more fractions with unlike denominators. For example, to compare 3/5 and 3/4, I had to find a least common denominator, multiply the original numerators by the same factors used to get the common denominator, and then compare the two fractions by looking solely at the size of the numerators. And all of these skills were taught in isolation. I never learned why this worked, just that it did work and that I should use this method any time I was comparing fractions. 

Now, in addition to the common denominator comparison strategy, we teach fraction sense—how to reason mathematically and use models and logic to compare fractions. For instance, in the example above, in both cases a 3 is the numerator, meaning that we have 3 parts out of each whole. Since I know the number of equal parts by the denominator, in this case 4 and 5, I can reason that 3 smaller pieces, 3/5, must be less than 3 larger pieces, 3/4. Therefore, 3/5 is less than 3/4.

Teaching fraction sense gives students not only a conceptual understanding of fractions but also ownership of the concept. They have the opportunity to discover it for themselves, derive their own methods of solving, and defend those methods to their peers.

What are you working on as a Curriculum Fellow?
Right now, we’re studying math topics in depth. My cohort is looking closely at the progression of the concept of volume from Grade 5 through high school Geometry. The Progressions Documents have been a go-to for me, along with the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. We also use test release items and tasks from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC); the Smarter Balanced standardized test consortium; and Illustrative Mathematics, an educational resources company, to expand our understanding of the concepts. We’re also studying the Eureka Math curriculum and considering how closely it aligns with those documents. 

It’s great that a curriculum developer is finally treating teachers like the professionals and experts we are. It’s something we’ve been seeking for years. We teachers, the experts in our field, know what’s best for our students. We seek advice from the Eureka Math teacher–writers, who work in higher education, concerning accuracy, progression, and coherence of the mathematics, but they also ask a lot of questions of us, to help them refine the curriculum. “How would your teachers react to this? How would your students do with this activity? What would the management of this activity in the classroom be like?” I think we make a great team. It’s the epitome of how a curriculum should be written.

How is Eureka Math shaping professional learning at your school?
This curriculum presents new models, problem-solving strategies, and teaching methods. That can be uncomfortable for teachers, but it’s necessary for our kids’ success, so we’re having a lot of honest, open conversations to continue building a culture of growth and success at our school. We’ve seen the studies of improvement in districts across the country that have implemented Eureka Math with fidelity, so we know it’s worth it.

Eureka Math uses so many different strategies, protocols, and models. To hone our craft, we need time together to study the curriculum and standards, time for shared lesson planning, and so much more. In the spring, I hope to redeliver to my colleagues some of the Eureka Math professional development I have received. I am currently doing selected training for some teachers in my school.

What are your next steps professionally?
This is a wonderful new chapter in my career that I never even considered. Currently, I couldn’t imagine being out of a school setting, which makes this fifty-fifty job-share opportunity so perfect. I think it’s important for someone who’s helping to revise a curriculum to be on the front lines, so to speak. This job has been the best math professional development I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot for me.  

I’m certified to teach Grades 1–8, but with all the extra knowledge I’m gaining, I want to get my secondary certification and teach high school. I have my master’s degree in educational leadership, so I also hope to be an administrator in the future. I think being a Curriculum Fellow will help develop me as a stronger instructional leader. I’m only 11 years into this career, and I’ve been afforded a lot of experiences, but there are still many areas to explore. One thing is definite; mathematics education will always be at the forefront of whatever I do.