Plantersville students work together to solve problems during small-group instruction

PLANTERSVILLE – Shortly after class begins, students in one of Pam Lettieri’s eighth-grade pre-algebra classes drift into three different directions.
Four of those students at Plantersville Middle School head for a row of computers, log onto a website address that Lettieri has written on the board and begin solving math problems that the site gives them.
Three move to a cluster of desks in the back of the room where Lettieri presents a lesson and questions them about whether different numbers are whole, integers, rational or real.
Meanwhile, four more students walk to another cluster of desks where they begin a math exercise prepared by their teacher. The students roll four dice, form two fractions from the resulting numbers, add or subtract their fractions and answer questions about the resulting numbers.
Twenty minutes later, the students rotate.
Lettieri is one of the many teachers at the fifth- to eighth-grade school who incorporate small groups into their daily lessons. On most days, she will divide her 90-minute classes into three groups: a technology group, a teacher-led group and a hands-on problem-solving group.
Lettieri said the advantage of the rotating groups is that other students can be learning from the computer or from classmates while she directs her instruction to a smaller group of students.
“I like it because it is hitting their learning styles,” Lettieri said. “You have visual with the computers, auditory with the teacher-led and kinesthetic with different hands-on activities.”
One room down, Crystal Bigham divides her eighth-grade science class into two groups to perform an experiment. Each team will test how well different powdered drinks dissolve in water.
“They learn from each other,” Bigham said. “They’re going to be actively engaged in their learning.”
Bigham said that when the students work in groups on different experiments – like testing acids and bases; building machines made out of Legos or constructing cells made from candy – it increases the rigor of what they learn.
“It makes it a higher-level understanding, where they’re not only recalling it,” Bigham said. “You have to get them to higher-level thinking skills because that is what the job force is looking for.”

Teamwork with peers
In both classrooms, group members discussed the problems with classmates. Sitting at a table in Lettieri’s room, eighth-graders Cameron Montgomery, Armani Champ and Jaqaisha Shack worked on the exercise with the four dice.
As their dice rolls and arithmetic produced a fraction, they had to deduce whether it was a whole number, an integer or a rational number. They then recorded their answers on a sheet of paper that they turned in to Lettieri.
“I like it because we work as a team,” Armani said.
Added Jaqaisha: “The people who know it well can explain it.”
Lettieri said the method also forces her to think outside of the box to create different hands-on projects for her students. They will measure different foam shapes or household items and calculate area and perimeter. They will solve logic problems, do exercises with cards and use crayons and paper to draw pictures of word problems.
“Kids are terrified of word problems, but if they can make it fun and understand the problem, it is no big deal,” she said.
She spent her summer researching websites for the technology station. Some contain games that reinforce skills and others produce problems for students to solve. She also found tutorial websites where students use headphones to replay a lesson that reinforces what she has taught.
“I like that we get to work on our own, and I like that it’s hands-on,” student Cameron Montgomery said.
The school’s test scores showed dramatic improvement in the Mississippi Curriculum Test results released last week. Principal Bill Horton credited the small group practices of many of his teachers for boosting that improvement.
“In a lot of cases, kids might learn from another kid better than they would from a teacher or they might discuss it better,” Horton said. “It’s working, so we’re going to keep doing it.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662)678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal