‘Student-centered’ class design leads to White House visit for Colorado Springs math teacher

School is a place where discovery happens for children. While assisting students on this journey, educators too can make their own discoveries. For one veteran teacher in Colorado Springs, a new teaching style has her students looking forward to math class, and put her face-to-face with President Obama.

Kirstin Oseth teaches math at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High in Colorado Springs

Kirstin Oseth teaches math at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High in Colorado Springs

For about 20 years, Kirstin Oseth did most of the talking in her math classes at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High. She gave the lecture notes, kids did the homework, and they reviewed the next day to see the progress. Several years ago, discussions with her principal and the move to the new Colorado Academic Standards led Oseth to rethink her approach to instruction. Now in teaching year 29, she runs what she calls a ‘student-centered classroom’.

“For me to know what my students are thinking, for them to know what they’re able to do, I had to change my classroom so I wasn’t doing all the talking,” said Oseth in an interview with the Colorado Education Association near the start of this school year. “I started changing things around so I could find out what my students were thinking. Instead of me being the one talking all the time, the kids are now the ones communicating, sharing ideas, growing in that way. When they walk out, I know what every student can do and that helps me adjust my teaching lessons.”

Oseth credits her success in student-centered teaching and great support from her administration and district for receiving a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching this summer. PAEMST are the highest honors bestowed by the U.S. government specifically for K-12 mathematics and science teaching, recognizing “those teachers who develop and implement a high-quality instructional program that is informed by content knowledge and enhances student learning.” Established by Congress in 1983, the PAEMST program only authorizes the President to bestow 108 awards each year.

“The key word I can say for that is ‘surreal’, a whirlwind,” said Oseth about her trip to the White House to receive the award in late July. “Shaking the President’s hand was an amazing experience.”

Oseth joins other honored teachers applauding President Obama's remarks at the White House, July 31.

Kirstin joins other honored teachers applauding President Obama’s remarks at the White House, July 31

Oseth, a longtime member of Cheyenne Mountain Education Association, was equally impressed that she and the other awardees spent four hours in discussion with White House advisers of science, technology and mathematics.

“They were asking us what the roadblocks are to STEM education in our country and what solutions we could come up with,” Oseth recalled. “We were in pull-out groups, coming up with our solutions and presenting them to those advisers. That was the moment that got me, that I was invited to the White House because they wanted to hear what I had to say.”

Oseth said the talks with the advisers focused heavily on the need to improve teacher training, how to recruit STEM teachers who can make more money in the business world, and how to help students get through the struggles they need to go through to solve higher-level problems.

Teachers need time to take students through the process of solving hard problems, which is why Oseth has enjoyed the transition to the Colorado Academic Standards (which has adopted the national Common Core standards for math). She says the new standards have reduced the amount of overall lessons she used to teach, from 13 chapters down to eight, which has allowed for more instruction toward students building critical skills.

“I’ve been able to spend the time having students communicate their thinking, construct viable arguments, and critique the reasoning of others. I’ve had the time to add a ton of higher-level thinking types of problems and then have the students go more in-depth into solving them rather than just flying through a curriculum,” said Oseth.

Kirstin receives her award from Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and Dr. France Cordova, director, National Science Foundation.

Kirstin receives her award from Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and Dr. France Cordova, director, National Science Foundation

Student participation is now the key part in Oseth’s teaching style. It takes time at the beginning of the school year to train students how to communicate what they’re thinking and understand why they think in this way, but Oseth says after a couple of months go by, she gets to watch her kids take the learning and run with it. “All of a sudden, they’re coming up with things, running the classroom themselves. They’re deciding what they need to do in order to learn better. They walk out of the room excited because they were able to share their ideas, because somebody cared what they thought, because they were the ones to suggest what we do in class and how we do it.”

Oseth has also changed her approach to assigning homework. She used to send students home with 20 problems, only to find the next day some students have the majority of them incorrect.

“What was the educational value of that time spent doing that homework the night before?” Oseth asked. “A light bulb went off with me. If learning is the goal of the classroom, and there’s not learning going on with the homework at home, then the learning has to happen in the classroom.”

Oseth now assigns just a few homework problems to make sure students retain what they learned in class, or a single challenge problem where kids present their thinking the next day. She admits it took her a while to get on board with the idea of less homework, but it’s turning her classroom around.

“The kids are getting their practice and doing their work in class where I can see exactly what they’re learning and give them immediate feedback,” Oseth said.

Answering the age-old question How do you get kids to like math?, Oseth says it starts with a student’s desire to be successful, especially on something they’ve never been successful at before. “Students walk out of the classroom feeling good about what they can do and they come in excited the next day. This whole student-centered approach is the piece that has gotten kids excited. When they walk out the door feeling successful with smiles on their faces, nothing that can beat that.”

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