My Experience at the Intersection of Teacher Professional Development and Edtech Research
In March 2018, I received an email about an opportunity for middle school math teachers using EngageNY to contribute to the development of a new ASSISTments feature called TeacherASSIST. The feature crowdsources hints and exemplars from teachers to support other users in providing personalized feedback to students. It sounded interesting, so I applied… over two years later, I just completed my “final” assignment for ASSISTments. Over the two and half years, I can say that this research experience allowed me to get into the minds of middle school math students, master my curriculum inside and out, and contribute my experiences as a practitioner to developing technology that will impact other teachers and student learning.
In addition to being a classroom teacher, I am also a Professional Developmentfor the state of Massachusetts with a focus on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). With UDL, we offer choice to our students as a powerful tool to build engagement. ASSISTments is an amazing program for providing choice: it allows teachers to assign one set of problems from our district-approved curriculum, EngageNY, but to offer it with a choice of two formats--on paper and electronically--with minimal additional teacher preparation. For example, I can assign a given problem set from EngageNY to have students work on for homework. Students who prefer to work on paper can do their work on the copied version we hand out in class; after a few clicks in my account, students who prefer the computer can work on the exact same problem set, augmented with hints, in ASSISTments. Because they have choice, the students are more likely to (1) choose the option that best matches their individual needs and (2) complete and submit the homework.
When I first began working on the TeacherASSIST project, I was creating video support for problems that offered hints. When I completed the videos, I was then asked to return to the program and create hints, this time in text form, and exemplars, which are text explanations of open-ended problems. My experience with the TeacherASSIST project has been unique, I believe, in that I have created content for EngageNY grades 6-8 not once, but twice. By doing both videos and hints/exemplars, I was forced to literally do every, single problem, beginning to end, easy or not, really experiencing what it’s like for students to engage with the problems. Since I teach 7th grade, and I was creating content for grades 6-8, I was also able to test some of the materials directly with my students to better inform the types of hints I was developing with ASSISTments that teachers can use to support student learning.
In August 2019, I wrote two posts on my blog about the amazing professional development experience of working on TeacherASSIST. I included some problems from the EngageNY curriculum that I had, as a teacher, skipped because I couldn’t figure them out. As a content creator, I didn’t have the choice to skip. I had to buckle down and work my way through every problem. At the end, I knew the curriculum inside and out. Writing hints forces me to think backwards from the end product - the answer - to the steps we take to get the kids to that final place. Of course, we do this as teachers, but working through the entire curriculum again has made me do so in a far more systematic way.
My favorite part of the professional development aspect of working with TeacherASSIST is that I really understand where the kids are coming from on a curricular level. There are some inefficient practices that they show up with in 7th grade that are annoyingly hard habits to break. It is very easy to place the blame on the sending teachers--we are all guilty of this! However, now that I have gone through every problem in the three grades in detail, I realize that sometimes it’s the curriculum itself that doesn’t teach concepts in a way that best supports student learning throughout multiple years. This revelation alone has made it worth my time to engage in TeacherASSIST.
As teachers, we always say that we don’t have enough time, especially not enough time to plan or to do vertical alignment with our curriculum. Working with TeacherASSIST allowed me to do it all--I explored my curriculum at my grade level; I got to know where the students are coming from and where they are going next, which impacts how and what I teach them in 7th grade so that the transition is seamless; and I supported other teachers in building a library of content for their use with their students. I highly recommend this experience to any teacher using a curriculum that is supported by ASSISTments.
Thea Durling lives and teaches in North-Central Massachusetts. She has been teaching math (grades 7 and 8) and English as a Second Language for about 25 years in the Commonwealth and abroad. Thea blogs weekly at TheaDurlingUDL.org and works as a private consultant with districts and teaching graduate courses on Universal Design for Learning.