McPherson Magnet School is part of Orange USD, located in southern California. A K8 magnet school focused on science, math and technology, McPherson has been open since 1997 and serves 900 students. The school’s mission includes valuing a range of learning styles, utilizing a variety of learning tools and strategies while extending the learning environment beyond the classroom.
Shannon Duncan is in her second year teaching sixth grade math and science at McPherson, prior to which she was a math and science teacher in an alternative school for five years and a district-level elementary technology coach for Orange USD. “I was excited to have the opportunity to teach at McPherson because of their philosophy of learning, and willingness to take alternative approaches to the old paper-and-pencil teaching techniques,” says Duncan.
While the district has used ST Math from the MIND Research Institute in math instruction beginning in kindergarten, in 2012 the Institute and district administrators approached Duncan to ask if she would pilot new ST Math material designed for the middle school level in her classroom.
Centered around an animated penguin named JiJi, MIND Research Institute’s ST Math software program teaches math visually. JiJi guides students through playful but challenging math lessons that involve a variety of scenarios, games and puzzles, each carefully designed to help students learn to understand math conceptually, instead of just memorizing answers. “At first I wasn’t familiar with ST Math,” says Duncan, “but I soon learned that it provides exactly what is missing from a lot of math instruction. It doesn’t just provide numbers and answers; it develops critical thinking, reasoning, logic and problem solving skills.”
Duncan’s students soon began using ST Math for 30 minutes, three times a week in her classroom, which uses a rotational blended learning model with three groups of 35 students each. “Since our district has been using ST Math since kindergarten, you would think these students would be tired of it. But as the program proceeds, the challenges get more difficult,” Duncan says. “Students get drawn into it. They challenge one another even outside of class to advance through the program. It’s awesome to see their enthusiasm.”
Duncan says the unique features of ST Math help middle school students in particular to succeed. “One of the challenges with this age group is that sixth grade students are about to be teenagers, yet are still very young and emotionally fragile. So it’s crucial to strike a delicate balance between providing structure and discipline, but not discouraging them,” she says. “That is exactly what ST Math does so well. It balances providing rigorous content while giving students a feeling of accomplishment and developing their confidence. The program teaches them that it’s ok if you don’t get it right the first time, but to keep trying until you do.”
“What I love about ST Math is that it supports cognitive development, as opposed to the drill-and-kill software programs of the past,” says Duncan. “Students are highly engaged and driven to succeed. We left the online portal open over the summer, and it was amazing how many students continued to use it.”
Looking to the future, Duncan says her plan is to continue to incorporate ST Math in her teaching. “My goal now is to have a section of ST Math associated with every lesson and each day’s assignment,” she says. “I’ve tried many other math programs, and this is the only one that so successfully incorporates every aspect of learning math, visually and cognitively.”
Read another middle school teacher's perspective on why blended learning works and our tips for getting middle school math right.