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Q&A with a Curriculum Fellow: Jill Zintsmaster

Jill Zintsmaster is a Title 1 Math Specialist at Picture Rocks Elementary School (PK-6) in the Marana School District, a largely rural area outside Tucson, AZ. She majored in elementary education and minored in math, earning a middle school credential. She also earned a Master’s in diversity and social justice in education, where she saw the importance of quality curriculum in providing access to the neediest students. 

Before she became a Eureka Curriculum Fellow, the six-year educator helped draft an earlier version of her school’s math curriculum, taught 4th-grade classes, then spent the rest of her time providing one-on-one and small-group remedial support to struggling students. As a Fellow, she splits her time between the classroom and helping to review and strengthen the Eureka Math curriculum. She discussed her experiences with us.

Jill's Timeline
2013-14: Tasked with developing school’s standards-aligned math curriculum
2014-15: Discovered Eureka and started using it to supplement her own lessons
2015-16: Kept adding Eureka lessons
2016-17: Her school began using Eureka exclusively
2017-18: District adopted Eureka fully
Fall 2017: Jill named a Eureka Fellow

Why did you apply to become a Eureka Curriculum Fellow?

A few years ago, when the new standards were first rolling out, our district left it up to each school to develop its own curriculum or find outside resources that were aligned to the standards and were rigorous. I was in charge of our school’s math curriculum. In developing resources, I was introduced to Eureka (then EngageNY Math) and started using it more and more. Two of our schools started implementing fully and saw significant student growth. 

It is very deep, very rigorous, lots of problem-solving. Most other publishers just took their old curriculum and rearranged and tweaked it a bit, but it was never fully aligned to the standards. Eureka really hit the math priorities. It was different from our home-grown efforts because it was so coherent from grade to grade. It was intimidating at first, but it was so clearly good for our kids. It’s much better now that all schools are using it, so kids and teachers are so familiar with the models and approaches.

The data shows significant growth, but the biggest impact is how kids see all the connections in Eureka Math’s A Story of Units from K through Grade 5. It’s so awesome to teach fractions and hear kids say, “Oh my God, this is so easy.” Fractions are no longer a scary, independent topic. They’re taking what they know about whole numbers and resizing them.

On becoming a Eureka Curriculum Fellow
In addition to my enthusiasm for the curriculum, I enjoy writing lessons and thinking about the progression of ideas. Being a Eureka Curriculum Fellow allows me to continue that.

I want to learn from and work with math educators who are so passionate about math and who know the content so well. I want to get a better understanding of this curriculum, how it actually gets written behind then scenes, then take it back to my classrooms, school, and district.

The importance of quality curriculum
Especially coming from a school and district that didn't have a curriculum for a while, the need was very apparent. It provides a huge support for teachers, a foundational tool they can go to that frees up their energy and time to address kids’ individual instructional needs. Plus, the standards are so different from what we expected kids to learn before and what we were taught in school, we need a good curriculum to teach well. 

Initial focus on large-number multiplication and division
I’m in a study group of 14—a mix of Fellows and teacher-writers. Our first step is to closely look at the current version, and discuss what topics and areas could be strengthened. Right now, I’m focused specifically on large-number multiplication and division in grades 3 through 5. I’m spending 10-12 hours a week reviewing the materials, networking with educators online, and then discussing the lessons with my colleagues through video conferences. We have a good diversity of views. It really helps to have the perspective of folks like me who are in the classroom to be able to say, “Here’s what my kids struggled with.” 

For instance, I personally think that the order of topics could be improved in places to help students better go from the concrete to the abstract.  This attention to revising what is already so good is what makes Eureka stand out in the crowd.

An initial a-ha

One a-ha for me, as a 4th-grade teacher, has been getting a greater understanding of what’s happening in 3rd and 5th grades and how the curriculum builds. It's been so useful to talk to the original writers and ask them, “What is this? Why is it here?” And then discuss how to make it clearer to other teachers who may have similar questions.  

Bringing the insights back to her district
Back home, I’m sharing insights with my peers and working with the district math specialist to do professional development focused on fluency, the ability to perform math problems accurately and quickly. I’m continuing to lead the 4th-grade professional learning community in my school. And of course, I’m available to provide advice to individual teachers who have questions.

I’m most interested in finding ways to have more impact, providing more math support that’s based on the day-to-day needs of classroom teachers.