Students were asked to solve the multiplication problem 24 times 36 in Geniel Joseph’s fourth-grade Accelerated Math class in Palm Beach County, Fla.
Joseph wrote on the wipe board one way they could solve it: by breaking apart 36 into 30-plus-six and 20-plus-four.
Then, she said, they could use the distributive property to multiply 30 times 20 and 30 times 4, and then 6 times 20 and 6 times 4 to get the answer.
She then stepped away from the wipe board and asked students to discuss among themselves how best to come to the answer.
Instead of choosing the method Joseph modeled, students began thinking of other ways that they could come to the answer.
One student theorized that instead of breaking apart the 20 and 4, they can focus on adding two 10s plus 4.
Joseph remained available if students needed help, but she urged them to find the answer on their own. And the students found many ways to solve the math problem with their classmates’ help. They explored their own methods to reach solutions to complex problems. In the process, they took ownership of their learning.
School officials in Palm Beach are learning that when they give students choice, students become animated and focused. At schools like Seminole Trails Elementary, where Joseph teaches, they often excel academically. The district’s new accelerated math program gives them the freedom to decide how they will solve math problems. It also lets them pick up the pace, so they’re constantly doing challenging work.
The hope is that eventually, they’ll complete more than a year’s worth of math coursework in a year’s time, setting them up to take algebra classes in middle school, and, if they’re up for it, multiple years of college-level math in high school.
In a typical math class, students are told one way to solve a problem, Joseph said. By contrast, she encourages accelerated math students to challenge her suggested problem-solving strategies, and collaborate to find the answers.
Joseph said she also lectures less in the AMP classes because students tend to understand how to solve the problem much quicker.
“You will teach them, and through their own learning, they see this might work,” she said.
Palm Beach — one of the largest school districts in the country — created the AMP program to allow students as early as third grade to get a jump start in math.
Students can participate in the program in the third grade if their teachers recommend they can handle an accelerated pace. In the fourth and fifth grade, they must perform above grade level to participate in the accelerated program. Advanced students who participate can take two years of math in one year, or three years of math in two years.
The program is part of a broader push in Palm Beach to personalize learning for students and enable them to learn at their own pace. The district is one of a handful in Florida with special statutory authority to test the concept of competency-based learning.
Students progress based on their mastery of different concepts.
“The AMP effect will impact student choices for higher-level math courses in high school and the university and open up opportunities for students to seek careers in the STEM fields,” said Mickey Banek, the elementary mathematics program planner for the school district.
Seminole Trails is just one of many elementary schools in the district that are taking advantage of the AMP program. Right now, 73 out of 109 elementary schools are taking part in the program at some level. Banek said he hopes to expand the program to all schools in Palm Beach.
AMP provides a challenge for students who need it, while also helping to improve behavioral issues for some students, said Jennifer Lo, Seminole Trails’ single-school culture coordinator.
Seminole Trails is a Title I school, where 756 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
While the curriculum is generalized, students make it personal, Joseph said.
“Once you teach them the content, then they go off on their own and try the different strategies and what works best for them,” Joseph said.
Jennifer Sallas, who teaches third grade AMP at Palm Beach Gardens Elementary School, said the high-achieving students need challenging courses to push them.
“They can work at a faster pace and on harder content because they are capable of doing more so they need to be exposed to it.”
One student, Marlee Robso, said he is challenged in Sallas’ class.
“It is teaching me new things I want to learn,” he said, explaining he loves the challenge of adding and subtracting fractions as well as decimals.
Robso said he enjoys choosing what he wants to learn. He was not able to work on such intense and challenging problems in a traditional classroom.
And Aiden Azoy, 9, said the AMP class makes learning fun.