Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School #237

Helping teachers get students to express their mathematical thinking in writing


Written by V. Châu and Laura Troxel

Helping teachers get students to express their mathematical thinking in writing

Q&A with Michelle Smith, Math Coach in Baltimore

Having the support of Leading Educators really helped me gain a deeper understanding of the 6-8 curriculum and how I can best support teachers as a coach,” says Michelle Smith, a 6-8 math coach for Baltimore City Public Schools.

Michelle SmithAfter 11 years with Baltimore City Public Schools, Michelle Smith has seen key evolutions in the district’s math strategy over time. Now, in her fifth year at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School #237, she serves as a math coach. As schools like hers work to implement the Eureka math curriculum, Michelle supports educators in applying professional learning on the curriculum to their lessons and developing standards-based instructional practices.

Through a multi-year math capacity-building strategy, Baltimore City Public Schools is partnering with Leading Educators in 20 middle schools to sustain a coherent math instructional system that builds teacher efficacy in numeracy. The goal is to ensure that standards-aligned curricula serve as a foundation for consistently challenging and joyful lessons across classrooms.

In this conversation, Michelle dives into her experience and what she has learned. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What support did you need as a math coach?

When I took this position in a Pre-K-8 school, I had only taught up to fourth grade. So, I knew I had much to learn about middle school math. In my first few years, I supported math teachers while learning the content alongside them. That was a challenge.

Leading Educators’ support helped me better understand the 6-8 curriculum, the content standards, and how I can best support teachers to integrate different math approaches.

Here at Highlandtown, we have one of the highest multilingual learner populations in the district. We’re getting new students every single day, and I need to be able to help teachers support students who have come to us from different paths to write.

One challenge that was posed was getting our students to write and convey their thinking on paper rather than turning in something blank [while they are grasping a new language]. I didn’t know how to fully support teachers in addressing that challenge—with all of the scaffolds not being given to them—until I did my work with Leading Educators.

What was it like adjusting to a new curriculum?

The K-5 Eureka curriculum is designed as the “story of units,” following a spiral approach. It gradually introduces concepts like number sense, operations, and algebraic thinking. It aims to help students understand ratios while cyclically covering various math standards. That understanding is supposed to happen in sixth grade.

The problem sets, student work, and lessons mirror each other. If you’re coming in as a kindergartener and having those lessons all the way up through fifth grade, you’re still getting the workbooks and everything in sixth through eighth grade. However, the format of the lesson and how the students engage with the curriculum look very different. It’s very, very language-heavy, especially in the 6-8 curriculum

In the K-5 curriculum, they’re getting one learning objective spanning each lesson. In 6-8th grade, the lesson has multiple learning goals. Trying to consolidate that into a 60-minute teaching block while not taking anything out and keeping the lesson accessible for our students is tricky, but it’s a real strength of our teachers.

Once teachers have internalized the curriculum and recreated some of the lessons with their students in mind, we want to support students to work independently, write how they solved the problem, and answer all parts of the questions. However, many students were turning in blank sheets of paper.

Leading Educators helped me learn how to help teachers examine student work more intentionally. Looking at the revisions and debriefs and then going back and adding something more is a practice that I’ve been able to carry through to teachers in our MCAP preparation for state testing.

What have you valued about working with leading educators?

What I found beneficial with Leading Educators is learning how to manage my coaching responsibilities, the out-of-the-building and in-person preparation, and the professional development. Having support from my coaches, Araceli, Naima, and April, has been valuable. We have built a relationship over the past two years that doesn’t make it feel like the scripted curriculum is so overwhelming to understand. 

I have learned to say: ‘Hey, can we sit down? I need a thought partner to walk me through this.’ Naima and April have been right there. I feel like they know me; they know my style. They know the teachers and the school.

Last year, during our discussions on misconceptions, I provided feedback to other schools in our network in southeast Baltimore. One common concern we raised was about supporting our multilingual learners. Many of our students are acquiring a second language, and we needed better support in providing language-rich instruction without overwhelming them.

I appreciated how the program took our feedback seriously and implemented specific scaffolds tailored to our students’ needs. They provided clear sequences for rolling out these supports, which felt incredibly important—knowing that our voices were heard and seeing the program’s continued efforts to improve only benefits our students more.

Having additional support people who can come in person or are accessible through Zoom at any point has made the transition this year much easier for us.

What is an “aha moment” you’ve noticed?

An “aha” that I had most recently was with my teachers when creating students’ definitions of academic language. We used the analogy of a recipe and how we can use the ingredients of a recipe to come up with the final product. I explained how we can think of vocabulary terms as ingredients in a recipe, and by adjusting the recipe slightly, we can create what works best for us. Using analogies and figurative language in math helps them better understand the scaffolds. 

During a planning session with one teacher, we sat side by side and wrote down our definitions of vocabulary terms in our own words. This hands-on approach made the concept feel authentic for the teacher, and she had an idea: to have students create a word cloud of different words related to the vocabulary terms we study each week and add them to a word bank.

As we discussed further, she expressed uncertainty about how students would put certain terms in their own words. For example, when talking about the term “origin,” she realized it might be challenging for students to describe it in their own words because it’s where everything starts. She considered changing the word to “reflection” instead. 

Providing these instructional strategies and seeing the teachers’ light bulbs go off made me realize that these activities aren’t “extra”; they’re integral to our authentic classroom instruction and are what’s best to meet the needs of our students. Witnessing this process with one of the sixth-grade teachers I’m working with this year was truly exciting.

what have you seen change?

For the first professional learning topic this year, I created a Frayer Model to identify the key vocabulary term and work backward. I was able to modify that activity for all content areas, and it was really effective. Because I gave our teachers work time and had the materials prepped, they found a current academic vocabulary term or tier three word they were working on in science class or social studies and practiced building on that.

It was easy to see what I could do with the work we were doing for math and using it in multiple content areas. It only took a little more work because it fits in with what we have been developing with academic language. The teachers sorted the vocabulary digitally so their kids could come up and sort on the board and use lots of pictures. 

I’ve also been able to relate the work from last year when we focused on misconceptions. What we’re trying to capitalize on in our academic planning meetings now is not students getting the right answer all the time but thinking of how we can support students in building on the answers they got. It’s about seeing the connection between our work with Leading Educators and these various topics to what we can achieve in MCAP prep, other subjects, and our broader discussions about academic language within the school and district.

In my coaching role, this also comes up in my follow-up with teachers. I ask questions like, “How did that go?” We’ve focused on delving into instructional aspects that are often overlooked, like whether they could incorporate something new that the students still needed to do or if they managed to conduct a thorough debrief session. We’re emphasizing the value of these instructional discussions, which go beyond just doing an exit ticket and moving on.

Final thoughts?

I remember leaving my first kickoff session with Leading Educators last year. I had no idea what was on my calendar,

‘A leading educator? I am a leader, but what are you talking about, and why is this on my calendar?’ Once I met everyone at Leading Educators and engaged in the professional development they provided, I left that day so empowered.

The value this has brought to my practice and my love of teaching and learning is huge. So, I hope to deepen the roots and pay it forward.

I appreciate the opportunity to talk more about this experience because, sometimes, it’s hard to see all the change and growth that is happening day to day. When given the opportunity to talk about how we got here with Leading Educators and highlight our students’ work, it reminds me how much growth we have had, both big and small, and in different capacities.

Stay Engaged!

This interview is part of an ongoing series in which we chat with school and district leaders to shine a light on the most promising opportunities for systems change and the leaders who are making it happen.

Baltimore City Public Schools Math is just one of a dozen partnerships across the country that are pushing the boundaries of what schools can offer students. Learn more about how we offer tailored support packages to help visionary districts, networks, and states go further faster.

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