It's about 9:45 a.m. on July 9 and about 25 of the students are listening as Graham Middle School algebra teacher Jennifer Lewis discusses how to figure out the common denominator of a fraction.
This is the Stepping up to Algebra summer camp — a program designed to help students who have fallen behind get back on track and to ensure that those middle-schoolers who have been keeping up with their studies hit the ground running in the coming year.
"The purpose of the program is to prepare students for algebra who otherwise may not have been on that algebra track," says Craig Goldman, superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District.
Organized by the Silicon Valley Educational Foundation, the Stepping up to Algebra program is in its sixth summer across Santa Clara County. This is the first year the program has been implemented in the Mountain View Whisman School District, Goldman says, and it's been going well.
"The kids seem very interested and engaged," Goldman says after the kids break for recess. He explains that the children took a test, at the beginning of the program to gauge their understanding of the concepts. There will be a test at the end of the week to see how much the children have learned. "We're looking forward to seeing the final assessment results. Based on what we've seen so far, we expect that the results will be favorable."
It's easy to see why his hopes are high. Even though it is the final week of the program, and even though several other summer camp programs are going on around the Monta Loma campus, all the children are focused on Lewis, who uses an overhead projecting document camera to work on a problem along with the students. She asks the kids questions and tosses them a candy when they get the right answer.
Incoming Crittenden eighth-grader Anthony Hansen — who only moments before caught a Jolly Rancher pitched to him by Lewis — says he definitely feels more confident in his understanding of ratios than he used to.
Hansen's friend, Kevin Esteban says he understands math better now that the program is almost over. "She shows it to us part by part," says Esteban, an incoming eighth grader from Graham.
Lewis says she can take much more time to explain each component of the a given math problem in her Stepping up to Algebra class. After all, she does have almost four hours each day with the kids. It's just "little things" that are holding the students back in most cases, she explains. And with the extra time, Lewis can find what is tripping up each student and help them grasp the concept.
But there's more to it than just time, Lewis says. This year, the Stepping up to Algebra coursework is designed to prepare students and teachers for the Common Core curriculum — new nationwide public education standards, which have been adopted by most states.
In preparing for the new Common Core standards, the curriculum of Stepping up to Algebra employs a method of teaching known as "blended learning." It's a system of instruction that uses a mix of direct instruction, project-based learning, educational technology and group work.
Students in the Stepping up to Algebra camp have their own laptops, which they use to access online education tools, such as Mountain View-based Khan Academy — where students can watch lessons on YouTube.
Jazlyn Mejia, an incoming eighth-grader at Graham, says she likes Khan Academy, because it allows her to learn concepts that Lewis may have glossed over in class. "Some things she won't get to," Mejia says. "So, I go on (Khan Academy)."
The students also use an online math program called Sumdog, which pits the students against one another in a math-based competition.
All of this adds up to a math class that the kids actually seem to enjoy. Lewis says they are having fun, "because they're actually having success. It's hard when you're in a classroom and you're almost getting something but you're not quite there." This class gives the kids the time and space and tools to make sure they get there. As a result they are proud of themselves and their performance, she says.
Goldman says he has been enthusiastic about the practice of blended learning for some time. He has given multiple presentations to the district's board of trustees advocating the approach to education.
The way Goldman sees it, the Stepping up to Algebra camp isn't just a learning experience for the children, it is also a bit like a training seminar for Lewis. "This gives us the opportunity to see how blended learning could work in a classroom environment," he says.
At Crittenden and Graham middle schools, the teaching staff has not had much of a chance to work with blended learning, but Lewis says she is already a fan and planning on bringing much of what she has learned teaching Stepping up to Algebra back to her colleagues at Graham.
"I've already talked with some of the other teachers about some of the methods we're going to steal," Lewis says.