Middle School Math teacher Jason Koza

I am fresh from participation in a ThinkingLAB hands-on and minds-on parent workshop which focused on Math. The workshop is part of the annual Colorado Academy Middle School SPEAK series and was led by Kathy Zolla and Jason Koza, two members of the Middle School Math team. ThinkingLAB is a Middle School shorthand term for our many efforts to intentionally focus on helping students develop their critical thinking, problem solving, creative, and collaborative skills. The recent workshop was designed to give parents a glimpse into the type of problems, problem solving, and critical thinking skills we are helping students develop in Math class.

At the workshop, Ms. Zolla and Mr. Koza introduced two open-ended problems that invite parents or students to conjecture, probe, explore, discuss, and experiment with possible problem solving tools, methodologies, and approaches. Better, they offer students and adults the opportunity to recognize that it is the process that matters, more than getting to the right answer, and that wrong turns and mistaken assumptions are necessary steps along the journey. As Mr. Koza explained, “Getting to the right answer at some point is great, but the learning happens along the way, as a student moves ahead by fits and starts, or as the group discusses and experiments with possible ways to approach the question.” Often an important part of this kind of learning is the student’s ability to explain the ins and outs of their thinking process and WHY their answer is on the mark.

Ms. Zolla and Mr. Koza also explained why, as teachers, they are open to giving students credit for going back over homework, quizzes, and sometimes test problems that were initially wrong, to earn back credit. In Ms. Zolla’s words, “Homework is about practice and making mistakes; it is how we learn. Giving kids, at times, the chance to reflect on errors, rework the problem to achieve a better understanding, and move closer to mastery is the name of the game in our program.” Ms. Zolla and Mr. Koza also emphasized the importance of giving students the opportunity to meet with them during study hall if they would like to talk through a problem or get a bit of extra help. “These one-on-one moments with kids can make all the difference,” Ms. Zolla shared.

Our Math program provides students with a wonderful balance of individual skill and mastery work, combined with the chance to explore mathematical thinking and problem solving techniques. Because of the way our teachers instruct, they build in time for students to wrestle with concepts, explore possibilities, and develop the ability to think flexibly and to persevere when the going gets tricky. This latter aspect of our program, giving kids the chance to wrestle, persevere, and learn from missteps, is not always what our students like most about our program, but it is part of the “secret sauce” that helps kids develop lifetime habits and a more complex understanding of the concepts under consideration.

Our Math team also provides additional opportunities for students to get excited about Math and problem solving. Each week Mr. Koza shares a hard and “super hard” problem of the week that ANYONE in our community can try to solve. Answers to these problems are shared with participants and with our whole community at Town Meetings. Many students also participate in optional Math competitions and on our Math Team.

Next year, we invite parents to join us for another deep dive into CA’s ThinkingLAB experience. Our focus will be Social Studies, rather than Math, but our goal will be the same—to help parents better understand why we believe our emphasis on the 6Cs is essential to the long-term success of our students. I hope you will continue to roll up your sleeves and join us in helping all of our students develop important habits of the heart and mind.