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Narrowing the Achievement Gap With a Culture of Persistence in Math

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This post is by Anne Simpson, K-1 teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School, Washington, DC.

Joshua came into my first grade class at the beginning of this year; he was not thrilled. I am in the second year of a kindergarten-first grade loop; Joshua was retained and repeating first grade with me. He missed his old friends, his old school, and his old teacher. He was just not pleased with the whole deal. Actually, he was pretty angry, and all of his negative feelings seeped into his general attitudes toward school and learning.

Simpson photo.jpg

Still, Joshua was a kid I wanted to believe in. Sometimes, kids don't make it easy, but here is a sneak peek into the story: children can change! Relentless messaging and careful nurturing of a positive culture can inspire every child to think critically and learn deeply.

Joshua represents the students in every class who each school year have a choice of two paths: 1. Continue onward being disengaged and ambivalent (which often comes with a suit of colorful behaviors) or 2. Veer off and reimagine one's self as a curious, hungry student. The choice of paths is all about attitude. Some time ago, I realized something very simple. When employed purposefully, the culture in a classroom can inspire children to find a positive attitude, learn deeply, and engage fully!

With this in mind, I pivoted my practice to prioritize culture before everything else.  I found myself the peddler of some loud messages:

  • Learning and discovery is THE MOST AWESOME way people can choose to spend time.
  • You help your own brain learn, BUT YOU ALSO HELP OTHERS when you work hard!
  • Leaving school at the end of the day is THE BIGGEST BUMMER, ever!

With earnest repetition, expectations, celebrations, and modeling, I fostered a classroom of BRAVE students, who were willing to relentlessly tackle any difficult, open-ended, conceptually based task I put in front of them. And crazily enough, most students were pretty excited about it!

Not all students buy in immediately, though, and Joshua was one of these. Joshua's resistance came up especially in math, as we grappled with a problem-based task designed to deepen students' conceptual understanding because it either has many solutions or an unclear route to a solution.  You can learn more about how my school anchors math instruction in problem-based tasks on our website, Learn With Two Rivers.

Even in first grade, the problems I use require deep thinking, engagement and bravery; they require the students to grapple with the content.  In our first problem-based task of the year, I remember Joshua--arms crossed, face stern--dragging his left foot, sliding the toe of his shoe across the carpet, then his right. He sat some distance away from the group and did not engage at all. In fact, he had to leave the group at least once to get it together (with some serious teacher coaching). For those first couple weeks, I swore we were in deep trouble. Joshua's negative affect toward school combined with the fragility of his foundational skills--he was not meeting kindergarten standards, much less first grade standards--had me preparing for one of those years.

Nevertheless, when Joshua felt and experienced the strong culture that my students carried on from the previous year, he began to transform even faster than I could have anticipated. The messaging in my classroom creates a safe space in which everyone applauds risk-taking, being responsible for your own learning and the learning of others; and finding joy in every learning experience. Making mistakes, trying hard, and having fun are just how we learn! The video below shows my students collaboratively solving a problem-based task in math and then synthesizing their learning through a gallery walk and discussion.


Within a couple of weeks, and after only a couple of problem-based tasks Joshua began uncrossing his arms and participating with our problem solving groups. I would have never imagined that by January he would say, "Can I do this problem-based task with you again tomorrow, Ms. Anne?"--let alone that he would mean it.

I use Joshua's story because the transformative role culture played is clear. Developing a foundational culture that encourages academic bravery fosters deeper learning for EVERY student. Without it, Joshua would not have overcome the huge gaps in his conceptual math understanding.  What we need is more teachers in more classrooms building this kind of culture for more students. Then our high expectations and deep respect for the work, effort, and courage students put forward in order to grow can begin to close the achievement gap.


If you would like to learn more about Anne Simpson's work, she is one many teachers featured in EL Education's new book Learning That Lasts: Challenging, Engaging and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction and the companion open-source video series, filmed and produced by David Grant.

Photo by David Grant.

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