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  • Writer's pictureCameron McIntyre

Kelly York: Teaching problem solving and self-reliance through collaboration

Kelly York always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but the details are something she figured out along the way. She was planning to be an English teacher before focusing on math in high school because of the influence of another great math teacher. She also taught math classes and tutored students all levels before finding out that high school students suited her personality best. From there, investing more into a learner centered approach in class eventually led her to where she is now–teaching Math 1 and 2 at the Collaborative College for Technology.

Kelly York’s learner centered approach has made collaboration the focal point of her classroom. Students investigate new material in small groups, working together to learn the math themselves. This lays the groundwork for full class discussion where the insights of each group's work can be shared, expanded upon, and contextualized.

This style creates a free flowing classroom environment where students have a lot of room to grow, but the classroom is also highly structured. “I group my students purposefully based on the way they work together, based on how they talk to each other, based on the content we are doing,” said Kelly. “I try to pair visual, tactile, and auditory learners, so they all get the whole range of being able to help each other.”

In these groups, each student gets a particular role with responsibilities to further their collective chances of success. “I love the energy in my classroom because they are always talking and they are always working together, but it’s not off task,” said Kelly. “They are always actually talking about the math, the patterns that they are seeing, and the connections that they are making.”

It all comes together to not only hone the mathematical reasoning skills of each student, but also their problem solving skills in general. Kelly’s classroom is similar to a foreign language class on this front. Her students look for processes and patterns building up their understanding of math’s grammar rather than memorizing it. This skill is the foundation for breaking down unfamiliar problems and communication ensures that they don’t get bogged down. Finally, Kelly makes sure to ground their collaborative efforts in math vocabulary with the goal of preparing students for what comes next.

A flipped classroom and a focus on a growth mindset make this approach possible. Kelly’s students usually do the lesson portion of their math studies outside class, which allows collaboration and teamwork to be the primary focus. There is also a classroom ban on the phrase “This is easy” to avoid making light of this work. “Instead of them saying ‘this is easy,’ we have them say ‘this is clear’ or ‘we understand this better,’” said Kelly. “They worked for that and we don’t want to say that all that work is for nothing.”

Photos courtesy of Kelly York

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