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City Year 101: Math Interventions and Tutoring

This blog was updated in January 2024 to reflect the School District of Philadelphia’s changing math curriculum.

In this ongoing series, we’re taking a deep dive into various areas of City Year Philadelphia’s (CYP’s) work with students. Our first two blogs explored social-emotional learning and literacy tutoring. This time, we’re focusing on how our AmeriCorps members, serving as Student Success Coaches, support students in math.

 

Math Interventions and Tutoring: What It Is and How It Works

First thing’s first, let’s clear up some technical language and differentiate between math interventions and math tutoring.

Math interventions follow a structured curriculum, Do The Math, currently implemented with grades 3 to 6 at three CYP partner schools: Hartranft Elementary, Sullivan Elementary, and Duckrey Elementary. Now in its third year, the goal of Do The Math is to gather data on student progress and explore the possibility of expanding the curriculum to more CYP partner schools.

Do The Math consists of a five-lesson sequence, with an optional sixth lesson. The first four lessons focus on learning the material, culminating in a brief assessment in the fifth lesson where students can demonstrate their understanding. Depending on student performance, the sixth lesson may offer additional support for specific skills or a more advanced exercise for students ready to challenge themselves. Do The Math sessions are conducted in small groups of up to five students, for a total of 90 minutes per week.

Andy Jones, CYP Instructional Director, leads a virtual training session on the School District’s new Illustrative Math curriculum. 

CYP’s math tutoring framework is designed to align with the School District of Philadelphia’s new Illustrative Mathematics curriculum, introduced in the 2023-24 school year. This curriculum supports the School District’s overall shift towards student-centered learning, moving away from traditional lecture-style teaching. In this new model, teachers encourage students to showcase their existing knowledge, using it as a guide for the lesson.

Corps members undergo training to reinforce this student-centered approach in their tutoring sessions. Instead of emphasizing “right” or “wrong” answers, students are encouraged to share their existing knowledge and explain their thought processes. Corps members then guide students through collaborative, discussion-based lesson plans that build upon their current understanding.

Corps members dedicate at least 60 minutes per week to tutoring students in math, either one-on-one or in small groups. Tutoring sessions may include extra practice problems, games reinforcing the lessons, or foundational content to prepare students for upcoming class material. Students additionally complete periodic ungraded quizzes to assess their understanding of the material. This enables CYP’s Instructional Team to make data-informed decisions based on student progress.

“So many doors are shut to students because of their perceived ‘abilities’ in math, which is often based on the idea that struggling is a bad thing. We need to fix that and help students recognize that you’re not born a ‘math person’ or not.” -Andy Jones, Instructional Director at City Year Philadelphia

The goal of City Year’s math interventions and tutoring is to demonstrate that, despite the challenges of math, all students can succeed. Andy Jones, Instructional Director at CYP, emphasizes, “So many doors are shut to students because of their perceived ‘abilities’ in math, which is often based on the idea that struggling is a bad thing. We need to fix that and help students recognize that you’re not born a ‘math person’ or not. If we work together through the challenges, students can feel confident and excited about math.”

 

Stories from our Corps

Success in math at an early age can have substantial ripple effects for our students, impacting their future education and career pathways. We spoke with four of our 2022-23 AmeriCorps members about their experiences working with students to overcome math anxiety and become confident math learners.

Elise Stovall served her first year with City Year Philly in 2022-23 and returned as a Team Leader the following year. In her first year, she served 5th grade students at Hartranft Elementary School, one of three CYP partner schools currently using the Do The Math curriculum. She found the lesson structure of Do The Math to be beneficial in breaking down the subject matter in a way that students can understand—with clear learning objectives and step-by-step instructions in each module—as well as offering opportunities to review and build upon foundational skills. Elise additionally uses the interactive games and activities in Do The Math to help students feel more engaged in their learning. She explains, “Incorporating games makes it fun for students to learn. The games also help students have a better concept of the material.”

Elise (pictured right) and her teammate Courtney Davis celebrate Custodian Appreciation Day at Hartranft School.

“Math is complicated and not everyone learns or understands it in the same way. The goal is to minimize the amount of anxiety by letting students feel comfortable not knowing everything.” -Syler Blaakman, AmeriCorps member serving at Bethune Elementary

Syler Blaakman worked with 7th graders at Bethune Elementary School. In his tutoring sessions, he focused on meeting his students where they are and supporting them to develop a healthy relationship with math so that they can become comfortable and confident in their learning. Syler explains, “Math is complicated and not everyone learns or understands it in the same way. The goal is to minimize the amount of anxiety by letting students feel comfortable not knowing everything.”

Syler shared an example of teaching his students about percentages. He first broke down the word into its literal meaning: per meaning “out of” and cent meaning “one hundred.” This helped some students grasp the concept, but there were a few who still didn’t quite get it or understand why it’s important. So, Syler put it into a real-world context, using the example of a phone battery. By showing students that they use percentages in their everyday lives without even realizing it, this helped the concept click.

Syler Blaakman (left) and teammates in front of a CYP-created mural of Bethune School namesake Mary McLeod Bethune.

Taryn Painter worked with 10th grade algebra students at Kensington High School. Like Syler, she supported her students with overcoming math anxiety, particularly as students prepared to take their Keystone Exams. Throughout the year, Taryn worked with her students on test-taking strategies to help break down complex problems into simple steps—for instance, rereading word problems and highlighting important pieces of information, or narrowing down multiple-choice questions to two possible answers. She observed her students gradually gain confidence in their test-taking abilities throughout the year and become more comfortable with trying unfamiliar problems.

Taryn elaborates, “I still see some students have math anxiety, but it doesn’t freeze them as much as it has in the past. At the beginning of the year, a lot of students would go into panic mode if they didn’t immediately know how to solve a problem, but we’ve been able to work together to take it one step at a time.”

Taryn (back row, second from left) enjoys some bonding time with her Kensington High School teammates.

“Seeing that student achieve something they didn’t think was possible will always stand out to me. Hearing their gratitude at the end of the year was all I’ve ever wanted to do in my service with City Year, and it’s one of the moments where I’ve seen the most direct impact of our work with students.” -Xavier Alvarez, Team Leader at Harding Middle School

Xavier Alvarez, Team Leader at Harding Middle School, served 6th grade students. Throughout the school year, he noticed a significant shift in his students’ attitudes towards math—from apathetic and reluctant, to enthusiastic and confident. Xavier explained that the City Year math tutoring framework was helpful in encouraging exploration and open-ended discussion in a way that is not always possible in the classroom.

Xavier spoke about a student from his first year of service who initially expressed that they hated math and thought it was too hard. At the beginning of the year, the student rarely turned in their assignments or engaged with the material because they didn’t think they could do it. In his tutoring sessions, Xavier worked closely with the student to explain math concepts in a way that they could understand. For instance, the student was a big sports fan, so Xavier used this real-world analogy as a way of explaining percentages and statistics.

By the end of the year, the student had improved his grade from an F to a B-. Xavier describes this moment: “Seeing that student achieve something they didn’t think was possible will always stand out to me. Hearing their gratitude at the end of the year was all I’ve ever wanted to do in my service with City Year, and it’s one of the moments where I’ve seen the most direct impact of our work with students.”

Xavier showing off his power greeting moves, as part of a video for Harding School’s Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) reboot in January.

 

Stay tuned for our fourth and final blog in this series, as we explore City Year Philly’s afterschool programs!

 

Are you considering a year of service, or do you know someone who is? Learn more about how you can serve as a full-time mentor and tutor with City Year Philly. Click below to start your journey.

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