Meet Ms. Arenas
Sixth Grade Math Teacher at South Bronx Preparatory in the Bronx, New York
When we first met Ms. Arenas, a veteran teacher with over a decade of experience, she taught her classes through a teacher-centered lens, commanding her students’ attention through an “all eyes on me” approach. Today, when you walk into Ms. Arenas’ classroom you’ll see a student-centered space that encourages student choice, peer collaboration, and student agency. Here’s how.
Enrollment: 653 students
Student Demographics: 72% Hispanic; 24% Black; 2% White; 1% Asian Pacific; 1% American Indian
Special Populations (Students with Disability and Limited English Proficiency): 25% SWD; 8% LEP
Free or Reduced Lunch: 97%
With four classes of 20+ students of varying academic abilities and learning behaviors, Ms. Arenas struggled to meet the individual learning needs of all her students. She needed a solution that could allow her to meet the learning needs of all her students and, ultimately, improve overall student achievement. In 2012, just over 3% of sixth-grade students at South Bronx Preparatory were scoring at or above proficiency on state math tests.
We proposed a plan to help Ms. Arenas drive student success. This included transforming her instruction to become more student-centered and integrating supportive resources through the aid of PowerMyLearning coaches and programming.
Ms. Arenas was excited to receive outside support, but hesitant to change the way she had been teaching for more than ten years. She raised three specific concerns:
- Accustomed to teacher-led instruction, Ms. Arenas believed her role as educator was to transfer knowledge to her students. The idea of giving the reigns to her students to drive their own learning independently and amongst each other gave her pause.
- She also was skeptical of the promise of technology to deliver student outcomes. In her experience, digital resources often cut out the teacher from the learning process instead of serving as a supportive tool.
- Year after year, Ms. Arenas tried to connect with her students’ families but she was unable to succeed. She knew that family engagement was key to her students’ success and she wanted to cultivate relationships that went deeper than the surface.
Ms. Arenas worked closely with PowerMyLearning coaches, who provided intensive support to help shift her approach step-by-step. Here are three strategies they implemented that transformed her practice.
1. Test personalized learning structures like student groupings and station rotations
Ms. Arenas originally set up her students in traditional rows facing the front of the classroom. To ease into a student-centered format, she tested small collaborative group activities for her students to work on. She was surprised to find that student engagement spiked – her students were capable of driving their own learning, even when her eyes were not on them.
When she was comfortable with small group instruction, Ms. Arenas proceeded to implement station rotations, an effective blended learning model where students rotate from group to group during a lesson. At every group (“station”), the activity changes, providing students a new way to work together and learn.
Ms. Arenas observed that the fluid and flexible format encouraged student collaboration, goal setting, and opportunities for students to demonstrate metacognition. Eventually, she even convinced school leaders to replace the traditional desks in her classroom with colorful tables to better support this format.
2. Integrate digital learning resources and prompt students to take ownership of their learning
PowerMyLearning coaches encouraged Ms. Arenas to try a range of flexible and rigorous digital learning resources, including curated content from PowerMyLearning Connect. Ms. Arenas was pleased to find that these resources supported her instruction and provided efficient means to meet the needs of all her students.
Here are a few strategies Ms. Arenas implemented:
- Ms. Arenas focused on promoting student ownership and resourcefulness by encouraging students to reference their notes and each other to support their own understanding before asking her for help. She taught students how to search for and evaluate their own support materials on PowerMyLearning Connect, so that when they got stuck at home, they knew how to look for help.
- Ms. Arenas used technology to foster student agency by creating PowerMyLearning Connect playlists, called “Protocol Playlists,” to reinforce classroom routines and procedures.
- One concept she used was “reciprocal teaching,” where students became the “teacher” in small group reading sessions, guiding peers through the lesson. This allowed students to take on leadership roles while promoting students’ reading comprehension, which is a core skill required for math proficiency.
- Ms. Arenas encouraged students to focus on progress and process rather than on grades. For example, she gave a couple of tests which she provided feedback on, but no score. Students then got an opportunity to re-do the test with help from their peers and online activities, without the pressure of the grade.
3. Build family connections
PowerMyLearning worked with Ms. Arenas and school-wide to help improve family engagement. In addition to supporting staff, PowerMyLearning hosted Family Workshops throughout the year to provide students’ families resources and training to help their children learn at home. This gave parents a window into what their children learned at school and an entry point for how to help them.
However, inside Ms. Arenas’ classroom was a different story. Year after year, she tried new strategies—she sent home letters about PowerMyLearning; created collateral for parents that outlined tips to support their children’s education; and leveraged parent-teacher conferences to discuss expectations—but nothing stuck.
She experienced her first glimpses of success by leveraging technology and in-person interactions.
For example, Ms. Arenas had students write letters to a family member about a math concept they learned that day. When they got home, they shared the letter with a family member and explained the concept, taking on the role of a teacher. This built upon the “reciprocal teaching” method, encouraging students to take on leadership roles outside of the classroom.
Here are two letter excerpts, one to a student’s father and one to a student’s five-year-old sister (*names have been removed*).
After, students and their family members posted a reflection on a related PowerMyLearning Connect playlist.
As Ms. Arenas adopted new practices and transformed her instruction, her classroom became the exemplar in the school. PowerMyLearning staff and school leaders at South Bronx Preparatory leveraged her natural leadership ability to influence other teachers and share best practices. She regularly invited teachers into her classroom so that they could observe strategies for adopting effective collaborative models.
She realized that the role of technology was not to replace her but to support her. Using technology and research-based practices instilled a sense of autonomy in her students, allowing them to take ownership of their learning. As a result, Ms. Arenas found herself taking on a new role–one as facilitator.
The upshot: Ms. Arenas’ students experienced large gains in math proficiency.
The number of students achieving proficiency increased substantially and continued to grow with each year of support received.
After our first year of working with Ms. Arenas, the percentage of students scoring at or above proficiency on the state math test tripled from 3.2% to over 11%; after our second year with Ms. Arenas, the percentage almost tripled again to 30%.
Ms. Arenas continues to improve her practice and drive her success forward. She believes that the more she knows about her students, the better she can adapt her teaching to their needs. To that end, she is currently pursuing a PhD in Special Education so that she can better adapt and differentiate her instruction to meet the needs of every student.
During the 2016-2017 school year, Ms. Arenas launched PowerMyLearning’s Family Playlists in her classroom. Using Family Playlists, she strengthened student-teacher-family relationships while also driving student mastery and social-emotional learning.