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Q&A with a Curriculum Fellow: Randy Swift

Curriculum Fellow Randy Swift
Randy Swift is a veteran teacher who has been working in the small Greenwich School District near Albany, NY for 15 years. He taught grade 4 for 11 years then looped with a grade 4 class through 5th grade. For the past two years, he has taught Academic Intervention Services to struggling students in grades 3-6, which involves pulling students out of the classroom two or three times a week and supporting them in the classroom once or twice a week. He recently discussed his experiences with us. 

What do you like most about teaching?
I love kids, talking to them, helping them make connections. Especially with my work in intervention, I really get to build relationships with students in grades 3-5. They know me as “The Math Guy.” I get especially excited when they say “I can do this now.” 

How did you get started with Eureka Math?
After the new standards came out in 2011-12, administrators, teachers, and staff began to look for new curriculum and started using the EngageNY Math (New York State’s downloadable version of Eureka Math) modules. I attended all the Network Team Institutes for two or three years. I just attended a recent Eureka PD session, and was joking with [teacher-writer] Adam Baker that the PD has become a lot more polished! Back then, we all were flying by the seat of our pants. We were the guinea pigs.

It was a huge struggle in our district that first year. There were a lot of tears, and not just from the students, but it was the most significant opportunity for my colleagues and me to collaborate. When everyone is pulling their hair out, we had to come together to figure it out.

What are you seeing in your classrooms now?
Students have a much stronger number sense and can explain how numbers work better. We’re doing much more hands-on learning and are not in as much of a hurry to wean them off manipulatives. Older kids counting on their fingers is not a bad thing anymore. Even with my 4th and 5th graders, I often go back to the concrete-pictorial-abstract models. For instance, last year we moved all the desks, I pulled out my dry-erase marker, and drew on the floor to explain area and perimeter. Many of them just weren’t seeing it.

I’ve also heard “I’m not a math student” less frequently in the past two years than in the past 10 years combined. As for my struggling students, I’m trying to teach a growth mindset where mistakes are valued, and they know we don't expect you to master these ideas the first time.

Why did you apply to become a Fellow?
Our district has been using this curriculum for five years. It’s a great opportunity to say, “here’s what’s working really well and some things that are not working as well”—from the classroom perspective.

With the 50-50 job share, I’ve taken a very close look at our benchmark testing in grades 3-5, and then share my analyses with each grade level. It's not an “autopsy,” like the end-of-year state tests, but a chance for teachers to help the students in front of them every day. I’ve had some other instructional coaching opportunities, and if for some reason we don’t do the Fellows program next year, I hope we create this position. It’s very valuable.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been working especially close with Curriculum Fellow Jill Zintsmaster to look at the coherence of multiplication and division from grades 3-6. So far, we’ve spent hours discussing what we mean by the “standard algorithm.” We all learned the vertical method of multiplying, but Eureka offers so many options. We’re discussing what is okay to allow students to do based on the state standards.

Why is it important for teachers to be helping shape curriculum?
Having taught real, living, breathing students adds a lot of value to this next phase. It’s an opportunity to ask the writers what was in their minds. I’ve had a few a-ha moments when I better understood how lessons build up. 
We’ll also be spending a lot of time building stronger bridges between grades 5 and 6—between elementary school and middle school.

Have you ever had this opportunity before?
Unfortunately, no. Curriculum generally was delivered to our doorstep, where we could only weigh in on four or five textbooks that the district was considering adopting. That’s it.

Why is curriculum so important?
Our new elementary administrator sees the value of empowering teachers. Teachers are now being asked what’s best for their students. We have standards. We’re asking what masteries are most important. The curriculum must reflect the standards and be the vehicle for delivering them. We’ve never had more teacher conversations about this topic before this year. 

Teachers are teaching in ways they didn’t learn in school. Parents did not learn this way either. The curriculum must be good enough to help support both groups in the process. In addition, it always concerned me that parents and teachers so often say, “I'm not a math person.” You would never go to a restaurant and admit you couldn’t read the menu. What we’re saying now is, “Even if this is true, don’t let the kids hear you say that.”

How are you sharing what you’re learning as a Fellow?
I’m putting together monthly reports for administrators and the school board to make sure they understand the benefits so that we continue the job share. Again, having that benchmark data is so valuable. With teachers, I’m helping them think differently and try new approaches. I’ve also started book study groups with the various grade levels, where we meet every three weeks.

What’s next for you?
In the next three to five years, I’d like to continue looking closely at how well we’re implementing curriculum from kindergarten through grade 5 to make sure the big ideas are being addressed. I love doing that. If my district continues to support this valuable work, I’ll continue showing better ways of delivering instruction. 

We’re a tiny district with a relatively small budget, but I don’t see why we can’t compete with the much larger districts in our area that have much larger ones. Our kids are just as good. Our teachers are just as good. What we need is our team of teachers regularly looking at real-time data and modifying instruction and materials to best meet our students' needs.