Problem solving in groups is how the real world works

Trisha Fink, TVDSB, Aldborough Public School


"I'm willing to try anything to get my students interested in math, to get them to build their confidence in math, that's my biggest thing. I want my students to see themselves as a math learner."


In today's episode Felix is joined by Trisha Fink, who has been a math teacher for 17 years with Aldborough Public School, Thames Valley District School Board, to get her views on:

  1. How to encourage students to adopt vertical non-permanent surfaces;
  2. How to measure success when introducing a new teaching model into your classroom;
  3. How to get parent buy-in when you're introducing new programs into your classroom.


 vnps whiteboard notebook teach in mathclass

What's your number one piece of advise to new teachers

Interestingly enough after graduation Trisha began her career in the finance industry.  However, she quickly realized  that she felt a real connection with kids, and wanted to combine that with her love for math as her ultimate career nirvana.


"So I actually started my career in the banking industry in finance.  And I just really felt a connection with kids. I enjoyed the math aspect of finance, but really wanted to do something with children.  And so I applied to teachers college and we just kinda went from there."


Trisha adds that looking back over the past 17 years, one of the biggest pieces of advise that she can offer to any NEW teacher just starting out is: "DO NOT PANIC."


"There are lots of wonderful people out there.  Just ask them for help because they're more than happy to give it to you. You don't have to do everything on your own. You don't have to reinvent the wheel.  It's there."



What type of teaching model do you use in your math classroom

Trisha is a big proponent of the balanced math program which stems from Barrie, Ontario, Canada.  However, she likes to add her own twist to the aforementioned by employing vertical non-permanent surfaces #VNPS to the mix.  Trisha discovered that #VNPS helps to get the kids more engaged because they are moving around the classroom, are collaborating with each other, and are are more energized.  The latter of which resulting in a better problem solving experience for everyone.


"I started with a balanced math program. Some teachers from the Barrie area had come up with it.  It incorporated some math facts, it incorporated problem solving, it incorporated guided instruction [...].  I continue to use that, but by putting more focus on the problem solving aspect, because that to me is one of the areas that we really need to help our kids with: that critical thinking aspect."


Trisha further provides that by adjusting the balance math model slightly by implementing a #VNPS focused problem solving approach, and allowing her students to move around the room, lead to more "jumping off points" for her students.  And she adds that the fact that they POTENTIALLY discovered this "jumping or leaping off point" from another #VNPS  in the room is not a big deal.  Trisha is of the opinion that isn't really cheating.  Instead, it's more like a COLLABORATIVE NUDGE.


"And I find that when [students] move around the classroom, and they're able and see what other people are doing, not just their group, this has helped them develop more strategies to answer questions, and to have a jumping off point, so they know where to start the problem if they are stuck."


vnps 1 students working on whiteboard flipcharts vnps 2 students working on whitboard flipcharts


What are some of the initial issues that you encountered when you implemented #VNSP

One of the big concerns that Trisha had initially when employing a collaborative model using #VNPS, is the resulting dynamic between the more gifted kids (high achieving kids), when paired with students that have historically had difficulties in math.  The surprising end result: The more gifted kids literally “helped” by collaborating and communicating their thought processes to their peers.


"So I was a little bit concerned about what would happen if all of my IEP kids get into one group, or what happens when one of my gifted students gets into a group with one of my kids that are working at a grade 2 level. How is that going to work? Is one just going to take over? However, I have found with the students that I'm working with right now, is that they really communicated better together [...]  my gifted kids are really learning how to communicate with some of my kids that are struggling, and helping them to work through the problem instead of just writing down the answer."


kid talking about math whiteboard notebook 

How do you measure the success of a new strategy in the classroom

Trisha uses a qualitative model or approach to measure the success of a new strategy when employed in her math classes.  One of the key things that Trisha looks for is feedback from the students in the form of conversation: if students are discussing math rather than what they did the night, then that strategy is deemed a success.


"So I measure a lot of my success for my students based on their willingness to participate. So there's been times when I've introduced a different strategy, and you can see right away that they have completely tuned out: They don't want to participate.  With #VSPS, vertical non-permanent surfaces, what I have found is that the kids are up, they're talking, and for me to go around and actually hear them talking about math, instead of talking about what they did last night, that is success for me."


parents and kids whiteboard flipchart vnps 

How to get parents involved in the changes that you're introducing into your classroom

Trisha says that getting parent involvement is key to get buy-in of new math strategies in class.  And the key to parent involvement is communication. One technique that Trisha uses is providing feedback to the parents in the form of photos of the students doing actual work and problem resolution during a math session employing #VNPS.


"So definitely we want to make sure that we keep parents involved in anything that we are doing with their children, because if you have parental support, then you're always one step ahead. So I just try to keep open communication with them, and if they have any questions with regards to what we're doing, I invite them to come in. I also do try to take a lot of pictures of what is happening on the #VNPS vertical non-permanent surfaces so that if parents do come in and ask what's going on, I can say well, this is what we're doing,  this is what your child has done, and this is what they have participated in.  So I guess just really trying to keep the lines of communication open and showing the parents that the model is successful because hearing their children talk in excitement about math [...] is proof right there."


There you have it

Some awesome tips on how to:

  1. Encourage student engagement by having them work vertically and collaborative using #VNPS to spark collaboration and communication;
  2. An easy way to measure success and engagement: if your kids are talking about math in class, as opposed to what they did last night, they're engaged;
  3. Keep the lines of communication open with parents to get their buy-in.


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