Researchers at the New America think tank have named Portland’s David Douglas School District a national model for language instruction.
“The David Douglas instructional shift that they made to focus on oral language and vocabulary is absolutely something that any multilingual district should be looking at,” said Conor Williams, a senior researcher with New America.
In other words, the David Douglas approach can help schools with lots of students who speak languages other than English at home. The New America study includes Earl Boyles Elementary – the school at the center of OPB’s “Class of 2025” project.
“We have to take our math brains — and just sort of switch ‘em off for a minute. And then, let’s go over to the other side, and put our writing brain on,” Rauch-McGowan told the class.
She knows that math and writing actually have some big things in common — particularly, language.
Math under the Common Core standards is less about calculating formulas and more about solving word problems and explaining answers.
These third-graders are learning multiplication. But rather than drilling times tables, they’re finding answers on their own.
Rauch-McGowan pointed out how one student solved a problem.
“Very nice. Did you guys see? She showed us two ways. She said she did four-times-four, but then she said when she was counting, she was going four-eight-twelve-sixteen — skip counting, or repeat addition,” Rauch-McGowan told the class.
Rauch-McGowan suggested how students might solve six times seven using graph paper: “Six rows and seven columns.”
Class of 2025 student, Jacob, drew his rows and columns.
“I put six down, and seven up here. And I counted two-four-six-eight…” Jacob said, his fingers following the boxes on the graph paper.
He counted by twos all the way to “… 40, 42.”
Jacob concluded: “Six times seven equals 42.”
“So I made seven circles, and then I put six lines in them. I went up to 18, then I started counting by ones,” Munira explained.
Munira’s family is from Somalia. In years past, students like Munira likely would have left the regular classroom for an English-as-a-second-language intervention.
Lots of schools across the country are trying to keep English learners in the regular classroom like David Douglas is doing.
Conor Williams with New America said David Douglas has made it work by avoiding huge changes — while giving teachers support and training.
The benefit, he suggests, means that the links between vocabulary and content extend to students whether their families speak Spanish, Somali or English. And socially, it means all the students stay together.
Integrating language instruction is a work in progress, and it’s slow to help math.
David Douglas elementary schoolers performed below the state average on last spring’s math exams.
At a recent training, third-grade teachers from all over the David Douglas School District focused on the crossroads of math and language.
Teachers discussed the kinds of explanations they get from students when doing word problems. But explaining answers is only part of the math-language challenge. It’s also hard to understand complex questions, said Earl Boyles teacher Michelle Moran.
“They don’t know which numbers they want to use, so they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to grab the first two numbers and add them together and then subtract that from the other number.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a second!” Moran said.
Back in Nicole Rauch-McGowan’s class, students played math games with dice. Joel is a native Spanish-speaking Class of 2025 student. Rauch-McGowan sat on the carpet to help him. Joel rolled two sixes, and had to multiply them together.
“Count them all together?” Joel asked.
“Are you going to count by ones, twos? What’s the fastest for you?” Rauch-McGowan asked.
“Twos,” Joel responded.
First, he drew six rows and six columns on his graph paper. Then he carefully counted, two by two, up to 36.
Editor’s Note: This story was changed from the original.