Educator Amy Falcone loves teaching and math.
For 14 years, she taught fourth grade at Westside School District. While at Hillside Elementary, she realized she wasn’t crazy about the old-fashion ways of combining the two: teaching math in a stagnant didactic setting.
“I just knew that wasn't right,” Falcone says. “So I wanted to be able to meet with smaller groups of students.”
In the summer of 2012, she did her homework and researched how other teachers approached math instruction.
Falcone stumbled upon the blogs of Laney Sammons and Dr. Nicki Newton who introduced her to the concept of workshop and guided math, she says.
Instead of only giving lessons in front of the class where students sit quietly and do their work, Falcone switched up the formula.
“It basically revolves around a whole group lesson – and the best part of it is that I get to meet with every single student in a small group, everyday,” she says.
One-on-one time is just one of the four rotating stations where there are also hands-on activities, computer learning and traditional problem-solving with pencil and paper. Each small group spends approximately 15 minutes at each station.
The workshop portion happens when the teacher gives the assignment for the day, usually around 10 to 15 minutes, Falcone explains.
Afterwards, students look at a management board to find out which group they're in and what they'll be doing for the class period.
The 2012-2013 school year is when she first used the approach and almost immediately, she says, she knew she struck a chord with her students.
In addition to exposing her students to new ways of learning, she in return understood the way they learned.
In her small groups, especially during one-on-one time, Falcone could see how her students solved their problems and discern whether a child needed re-enforcement in foundational principles or a challenge if he or she could already do math at grade-level.
Within the same year, her peers began to take notice – some at her school or within the Westside School District. Eventually, the district did as well.
Stephanie Allen, a third grade teacher at Westbrook Elementary, remembers when Falcone launched the approach. At the time she was a student teacher.
“When I started teaching, I just ran with it because I loved it so much,” Allen says. “It's been great. Students are a lot more engaged. They get really excited to play the hands-on game.”
Falcone estimates roughly 35 percent of the district’s teachers use some form of guided math and the workshop approach.
While she used the influences of Sammons and Newton, she says, she had to tweak the methods based on resources available to her while considering cost.
“I knew I had this big idea, but I didn't know if it was going to work,” she says.
But the district seemed to think it did.
The local attention also made the White House notice after a former principal of Hillside nominated Falcone.
In 2014, Falcone received the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
The former teacher, who is currently a teacher leader at Westbrook Elementary, made the trip to Washington, D.C. earlier this month to receive the honor.
While she didn’t get to meet President Barack Obama, she did receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation.
No longer in the classroom, Falcone says she’s still looking for ways to inspire other teachers.
“It cost money and time in order to do it well,” Falcone says. “If we're going to do something, we're going to do something right.