New teacher-led initiative at St. Mary innovates math for modern learners

A new method of learning mathematics is being used at Ecole St. Mary High School in Prince Albert. /Photo courtesy St. Mary Math Department

A new tool at École St. Mary High School is letting math teachers interact with students from anywhere as if they were writing on the board with students right in front of them.

Principal Mark Phaneuf and Laura Rissling, a math teacher at St. Mary and a learning leader on the project are enthusiastic about what has been created at the high school.

“We are really excited about it,” Rissling said.

The math department submitted an application to the division for funding for the project for the 2020-2021 school year. The math department works together to create video lessons that are posted online through the Edsby portal.

“Right now St. Mary is doing a hybrid model of learning. So we are in class for part of the time and then students are learning at home. So for the math teachers, we immediately started to think how would we make it so they could understand these concepts while they are away from us,” Rissling said.

The funding application included a request for an IPad and Apple pencil for each teacher and the EasyTeach app.

Rissling explained that the app acts like a whiteboard transmitting directly to each student, and teachers use it like a regular one in a classroom.

“If you are focusing on the screen it is like you are watching a teacher write on the whiteboard and being able to ask them questions and they can hear your voice,” Rissling said.

Rissling explained that being able to follow the logical progression of steps is very important in math. The new tool means remote learning can take place closer to the experience of being in the actual classroom, with students both seeing the steps and hearing verbal cues.

“We are finding a lot of success through their being able to watch those videos at home and then coming with very minimal questions the next day. We are able to keep their learning progressing so they are not falling behind or feeling too rushed,” she said.

According to Rissling, it is advantageous to people who learn better by hearing, or auditory learners.

“They are not just getting a piece of paper where all of the steps are already finished and trying to figure out where to go next or where things even came from. They actually get to see the example’s progress, they get to hear the little reminders we would normally give.”

Students can ask teachers questions immediately through email or the Edsby portal.

“They can send us screenshots of maybe what they understood or where they might have needed help. It helps us be able to teach from afar,” she explained.

“The other aspect that we have been using a lot is the ability to take pictures of their work,” she explained.

The photo editing software in EasyTech allows teachers to provide individual feedback to students through highlighting student work and providing descriptive feedback.

“The feedback is immediate, they are not having to wait overnight and not really sure where they maybe went wrong. You can actually circle them and maybe help them access that information a little bit faster,” Rissling said.

The teaching tool allows for interaction between teacher and student, which Phaneuf said is a plus.

 “It is not just about the video recorded lessons and it becomes interactive in that it appears to the kids it is like you are writing on their sheet and they are writing on yours,” he said.

 “You get that opportunity to connect with the student in the learning as well, not just post something and find out what they do or don’t know,” he explained.

The actual posting is done separately through the app, which adds flexibility to teach in this manner. Phaneuf called it the best of both worlds for both visual learners and auditory learners

“It is that visual progression of working through a math problem, for example, or finding a solution, graphing, one of those things for people that see graphing as somewhat abstract even though it is in front of you. You get that visual cue but you also get the verbal cue,” Phaneuf said.

According to Rissling, it is being implemented in Grade 10 to 12 math subjects with Grade 9 possibly being added to the system.

“It could be used for really any course, even our science department has looked into it and using the app. It is just that idea of being able to teach even though they are not right in front of you,” Rissling said.

Phaneuf gave credit to the board of education and the staff. He credited the board for the vision to invest in projects put forward by teachers.

 “So you get teachers working together on not just the planning but on the delivery of the model as well. And then really it is a win for everybody; the board’s dollars were best spent for students learning so that is ultimately the goal,” Phaneuf said.

He explained that teachers can work more proficiently, especially online.

“What we have here are teachers working together because there is a science to teaching but there is also a craft to it. So someone might bring different elements to what the other math teachers do. When they work together they can all learn from each other at the same time,” he said.

 “I really give kudos to the board and to our math teachers. Number one to the board for offering that teacher led collaboration, but secondly for these teachers to really take a risk and put the time and effort into it to enhance their teaching and really student learning. That is what this school is all about, it is about student engagement in and out of the classroom and I can’t think of a better way to engage students away from the classroom than what these math teachers are doing right now.”

Lessons are posted in the morning and students can access them any time of day.

 “As time goes on and as the year progresses we are really poised to be able to react to whatever we are given with the full curriculum,” Phaneuf said.

One plus, according to Rissling, is that the students can replay lessons at home whether or not they were present in class. Hearing a lesson more than once is important to how modern learners take in knowledge, both Phaneuf and Rissling said.

“It also benefits students that were in class because they can go home and re-launch a lesson which is kind of nice. You are there for the live presentation of the material and the discussion that happens. If they can’t remember what was in the discussion this allows them to go back to get those reminders, so even if they were in class I find that some of them are using it to watch it to get the information,” Rissling said.

Learners of today are not like the learners when Phaneuf came to St. Mary 17 years ago. He explained that they are self-learners and use technology like TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat. He celebrates the fact that they like to re-watch and use that to learn.

 “We are giving them an opportunity to learn in a way that they do,” he said. “I know a lot of people talk about kids nowadays, kids nowadays can do things we could have never done when I was in high school. I want to celebrate that these kids are different; we want to acknowledge that, we want to make sure we teach to their strengths. The idea of being able to re watch the video, being able to interact means the world to them.”

Rissling explained that the effort is coming from the entire math department. She explained that they have daily discussions and everyone contributed.

 “ I have the best people to work with and they bring lots to the table and we are forever showing the best ways to use it,” she said.

 “It is neat to see how everybody is finding a new way to implement this new technology.”