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Making sense out of math with games, competition and ‘growth mindset’

Filling in the Gaps in Math Skills with Games, Rivalry and ‘Growth Mindset’

On a quiet street in Providence, Rhode Island, a battle of mathematical wits is playing out in a cramped but colorful classroom. Ruben*, an outgoing fourth-grader with dark hair who loves to compete, calls out “eight times five is 40” and puts a green plastic chip into play on the game board in front of him. At stake is a chance to beat his opponent–and more importantly improve his skills after exams indicated Ruben lagged behind his grade level in math. Since then, he’s worked with City Year AmeriCorps member LaShawn Simmons at least twice a week, every week, on multiplication and division problems to the point that, with some luck of the dice, he has a fair shot at winning this morning’s math game.

“I have very high expectations of him,” says LaShawn, who has been Ruben’s tutor, mentor and cheerleader since the beginning of the school year. “His test scores didn’t reflect his intelligence.”

The scene of students being guided, encouraged and tutored in math and literacy is repeated daily in 29 U.S. cities where City Year AmeriCorps members supplement instruction in classrooms working side by side with teachers. Through the work of corps members like LaShawn and investments from long-time partners like energy company National Grid, City Year AmeriCorps members support 228,000 students in 349 of our nation’s highest-need schools. Their efforts give students in our partner schools a better chance to earn a high school diploma and move onto a successful career and future.

Helping create learning opportunities for the engineers and scientists of tomorrow is one reason that National Grid has supported City Year for over a decade. National Grid is a regional City Year partner in the northeastern U.S. focused on supporting the organization’s initiatives on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM–critical fields in today’s workplace.

“Like City Year, we’re dedicated to the communities where we serve,” says National Grid Corporate Citizenship Manager Lynne Papetti. “Through our nonprofit partnerships, we aim to make a meaningful long-term impact in the community, and one way to do that is investing in education organizations like City Year.”

At National Grid-supported sites in Providence, New York City, Buffalo and Boston, 480 City Year AmeriCorps members are serving in 57 schools, reaching 30,370 public school students this school year.  National Grid employees volunteer across the region each year to lead workshops with students on environmental safety, participate in physical service projects like beautifying schools, and provide resume-building and other professional development opportunities for City Year AmeriCorps members.

National Grid employees also take part in STEM activities at local schools. This past Pi Day, a March celebration of the mathematically important number 3.14, National Grid employees worked with students at City Year’s partner schools in  Providence to explore the geometry of circles with arts and crafts–activities that ended with some dedicated corps members getting whipped-cream pies in their faces.

Filling in the Gaps

City Year AmeriCorps members provide additional capacity in the classrooms of under-resourced schools, monitor student progress with real-time data and provide one-on-one tutoring and small-group instruction that allow teachers to better meet the learning needs of their students. In Rhode Island, one-in-three students who are economically disadvantaged also are below basic proficiency in math in the fourth grade, compared to only one in 10 of those who aren’t.  The disparities in educational outcomes remain throughout high school, with about three-in-four economically disadvantaged students graduating, compared with 93 percent of those who aren’t disadvantaged, according to the state.

“Many children experience gaps in their foundational knowledge of math that make it harder to keep up with grade level content,” said Kristen Olmsted, a former teacher and City Year national math design specialist who trains corps members like LaShawn during the school year. “We’re trying meet our students where they are at and fill in those gaps.”

Along with academic tutoring, AmeriCorps members also promote social-emotional learning, or skills like cooperation and self-regulation of emotions, which can be keys to success for students both in and outside the classroom. This additional support from City Year can be especially important in schools that don’t have the personnel and resources to provide the levels of academic and social-emotional support per student that are more easily found in schools in wealthier communities.

Working with his AmeriCorps member LaShawn, Ruben is learning how to be a good teammate during his small-group sessions, and better managing his feelings of frustration when working on a thorny math problem–skills that have changed his attitude toward the work.

“He did not like fractions–he would take the sheet and put it aside, and then sit back with his arms crossed,” says LaShawn, sitting in a large room where some of her colleagues are eating lunch with students. “Now he loves fractions.”

Growth Mindset

At the brick school with a narrow front yard used as a parking lot, City Year AmeriCorps members help students build their academic, social and emotional skills using a “growth mindset” approach — the belief that intelligence, talents and abilities aren’t fixed, but change with the amount of time and effort put into learning.

As tutors, mentors and role models–mature enough to offer guidance, young enough to relate to students’ perspectives–AmeriCorps members are able to build caring, consistent and trusting relationships with students who, in turn, grow to feel more confident about asking for the help they need. When Ruben asked LaShawn to move his study group to a quieter room permanently to work because their shared space made it tougher for him to focus, she found a new place for their group.

And Ruben also shows he’s internalized some of the other lessons he’s been taught as their board game–a hybrid of tic-tac-toe and bingo–progresses. When things look bleaker for LaShawn after a few moves, Ruben reminds her to keep a “growth mindset”–a good way to win at more than just math.

*Name changed to protect student privacy

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