“I’m a self-proclaimed math geek,” Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School (WRAMS) math interventionist David Keech says, laughing. “And I don’t feel that’s at all negative—I love math, and always have. My dream job was teaching middle school math with a bit of algebra thrown in—and I was lucky enough to do that for a few years!”
Keech isn’t kidding. He’s been mathematically analyzing everything since he was a kid—going so far as to design his own version of fantasy baseball with a neighbor when he was 12, complete with dice and several painstakingly neat notebooks of player statistics. “I can’t remember a time when I was happier,” he says. “I was in love with math, in love with sports, and it’s a moment in my life that always stands out to me—similar to how a poet might remember crafting his or her first poem.” When he isn’t teaching during the school year, Keech has spent his summers teaching gifted students at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, designing courses on everything from fantasy sports to stats and probability.
A focus on hands-on, project-based math learning
During his 28 years of teaching in Wisconsin Rapids (22 years as a sixth-grade teacher, five as a junior high teacher, and this year as the middle school’s math interventionist), Keech has centered his classrooms around the concept of hands-on, project-based learning. “I want my students to be able to see the connections with math and their world, with math and other subjects,” he says. “If a student wants to write a song to demonstrate mastery of a particular objective, or creating a piece of artwork, I welcome those interpretations. There are plenty of ways to demonstrate mastery, and my goal has always been to take some of the bewilderment out of math.”
When WRAMS was looking to create a full-time math interventionist role, Keech knew that the many facets of his career would serve him well. In his position, he’s responsible for working with students in Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions, as well as gifted students. He also works alongside the sixth- and seventh-grade classroom math teachers at WRAMS, in addition to the math coordinator at the district level, to structure curricula.
Fleshing out a math interventionist’s role
Keech teaches several periods with small groups—sixth-grade students who need extra support, seventh-grade students who essentially have a second math class for front-loading concepts, a group of seventh-grade students who are learning eighth-grade math, and a single student who is learning ninth-grade algebra. It’s a role that is unique when considering the usual job description for a math interventionist. Not only is Keech planning intervention instruction, he’s teaching it. Even though WRAMS is a two-grade middle school, Keech teaches four grade levels throughout the course of a day.
Keech’s role at WRAMS has been a success. A recent article in Teaching Today Wisconsin, a resource tool for Wisconsin school districts, details the strides that have been made in identifying the appropriate interventions and opportunities for students—nine differentiation plans that have been created to address the needs of Tier 3 students, the idea of compacting curricula for gifted students, and many other accommodations specifically created to differentiate instruction for the over 700 students attending the school.
Creating a way for differentiated intervention
Keech had used Renaissance Accelerated Math® throughout his teaching career, and knew the program would be an important pillar of the differentiated experiences he would need to create. “For instance, we have a few students in Tier 2 intervention, and those students may struggle with concepts or specific skills. In those cases, we use Accelerated Math to provide them with more background for those concepts. In other cases, it’s front-loading—I try to think about the things they’ll be learning in the fourth quarter, and this practice is able to coincide with what they’ll be introduced to in their usual math classes.”
In Keech’s class, small groups of students are able to access their own Accelerated Math assignments, and are able to work at their own pace to complete each assignment and, by extension, master each standard. In addition to the learning resources that are included to help students, Keech appreciates that the platform makes it easy for peers who are working on the same concepts to assist each other. “When you give a group of students the same objectives, it’s a great opportunity for them to work with one another and help each other gain confidence. That’s something that can’t always occur in a larger math class.”
Providing an opportunity for productive struggle
In addition to the peer-to-peer learning that Accelerated Math facilitates, Keech also appreciates that it helps to build the kind of productive struggle that ultimately leads to mastery. “Students are able to do problems, and if they make mistakes, it’s a teachable moment—they’re able to see the steps that they took to get to an incorrect answer, and after a bit of one-on-one work with them, they try again.” It’s that type of analysis, Keech says, that leads a student to think about the bigger picture—not just what the right answer is, but what the reasoning is behind a math concept. “Students want to know why they’re learning what they’re learning,” he says. “It helps students to know what the target is for them—it makes learning more inclusive and less abstract.”
In addition to utilizing Accelerated Math, WRAMS also uses Renaissance Star Math® as an interim assessment three times a year. “It’s important to have a number of assessments for data purposes, rather than one test per year,” Keech explains. “The assessments have helped us make a number of programming decisions—we take all of these historical scores into consideration for intervention, along with standardized state test scores, attendance, and teacher observations. All of this provides a look at a whole student rather than a snapshot of where they are at a specific point in time, and it also allows us to reconfirm our intuition about placing students in specific groupings or deciding to provide a more challenging curriculum.”
Looking ahead to growth
In a few weeks, Keech will be wrapping up his first year as math interventionist at WRAMS, and he’s excited to see a year’s worth of data on his students. “When I was using Accelerated Math in my classroom, I had a data coach from Renaissance who went through my results with me. One year in particular sticks out in my memory, because my students increased 2.2 years of growth in a year—and that was an average. That’s absolutely incredible, and it says something about the importance of math practice in a classroom.”
It’s this kind of math practice that benefits not only Keech’s students, but how he looks at his craft as well. “As a teacher, there are things that take us out of our comfort zone—and that’s what Accelerated Math did for me. Using the program to differentiate instruction to the degree that I did as a sixth-grade teacher and now do in this new role required me to learn about the program in depth, to utilize it to its fullest, and it took a great deal of work. At the same time, it would have been a disservice to my students to say, ‘Okay, sit at your desks and take out your math books because you’re all going to learn the same thing.’ It helped me reach for something higher—for my students and also for me as their teacher.”