A Big Idea Comes to Life

Nicole Walter Rowan, Meghan Jewell

IMAGINE... classroom teachers directing their own professional development, conducting  their own research in  their own classrooms. Having access to leading North American researchers and staff developers. Having time to support each other. Having funding to make it possible. Imagine . . . nine teachers in Thunder Bay are doing just that.

THE CHALLENGE:  Learning a new way of teaching math

Over the past 20 years, methods of teaching mathematics have shifted, from keeping students busy with the rote learning of disconnected facts and procedures to teaching for automaticity and flexibility and for a deep understanding of mathematical concepts. 1 Today, communication and community are critical in teaching and learning math. Classroom experiences are structured so that students will develop mathematical strategies and ideas as they work toward making sense of problems. Students also learn to collaborate, responding directly to the ideas of others that may conflict with their own. In such a community, students learn to articulate their perceptions, listen to each other, and analyze each other’s ideas.

As classroom teachers at Agnew H. Johnston Public School in Thunder Bay, we wanted to provide our students with the most appropriate and progressive learning experiences. We knew that every year there are students who “just don’t get it,” we were aware that we needed to do things differently. We wanted to teach math in a manner that ensured  allstudents learned. Some of us simply weren’t comfortable with math ourselves and didn’t have the confidence to know where to begin.

The reform movement in mathematics education is something we hadn’t experienced ourselves or seen in practice. We didn’t have the background knowledge, and the expertise wasn’t available in our school community. Trying to squeeze one more thing into an already packed instructional day was also a daunting task. As Jacqueline Watts, a Junior teacher, pointed out, “There is so much in the math curriculum in grades 4 and 5. Trying to tackle all of that  and do it in a new way was pretty intimidating.”

THE SOLUTION:  Designing our own learning

To put challenging instructional theory into practice we turned to each other – kindergarten to grade 5 teachers, English and French Immersion teachers.

Our story goes back a few years. Nicole Walter Rowan’s professional relationship with Dr. Alex Lawson began when Lawson was a graduate student and spent time in Walter Row- an’s classroom. Lawson, now an associate professor at Lakehead University’s Faculty of Education, urged her to attend workshops offered through the Mathematics in the City program at City College in New York. 2 Thanks to a small MISA grant, she was able to do that and it was there she met Antonia (Toni) Cameron, the facilitator of her first workshop.



four etfo members sitting at table facing front of room

Members of provincial parliament met with ETFO presidents and executive members at an informal breakfast gathering.

Classroom full of students overseas

Project Overseas. These words hung in the back of my mind for almost a decade.