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Northwestern students celebrate math

Sixth grade teacher Kraig Anderson shares a laugh with Sophia Jonasen Nov. 1 at Northwestern Middle School. Anderson and fellow sixth-grade teacher Jeff Olson have found ways to make math challenges fun, increasing student proficiency dramatically. Maria Lockwood

Walk down the sixth-grade hallway at Northwestern Middle School, and you may catch the sound of a celebration, Kool & the Gang-style.

When a student hits a math milestone, Jeff Olson throws open a classroom cabinet decorated with Christmas lights, cues up the 1980 tune and proceeds to dance with the class.

"It is a big deal," Olson said. "We turn the lights out, the Christmas lights are on and then we crank the music up and we clap to the beat. And that's an important piece, that everybody participates."

Olson and fellow sixth-grade teacher Kraig Anderson were selected to speak at a state summit this spring due to their state test results and the dramatic improvement students were making in sixth grade.

"Clearly some dynamic things were happening in there," said Northwestern Middle School Principal Tanya Krieg. "The trends were showing that some things were happening in our building and in those particular classrooms with those two teachers."

It wasn't just test results, Krieg said, it was the students' level of proficiency — whether or not they are prepared to move on in the community, in their career, in college-readiness.

What are they getting right?

The district adopted a new math curriculum, chosen by the teachers themselves, last year. It gave teachers an official resource instead of having to mix, match and create lessons of their own to meet state standards. An online component, ALEKS, keeps track of the student's mastery of mathematical concepts.

"I think of core programs and curriculum as your GPS, how you're going to get there, what's the navigational route that we're going to make," Krieg said. "But I think it's competent, compassionate, caring drivers that are also willing to get you there, and that's what our teachers are."

"They say there's a direct correlation between if you like your teacher and you're enjoying the subject to what you retain," said District Administrator Sara Croney, Ph.D.

Olson and Anderson have been teaching at Northwestern Middle School for 22 and 23 years, respectively.

"Their kids know that they care about them as people and that makes caring about the content area, I think, that much more," Krieg said.

They also aim to make learning fun.

"We try to laugh a lot," Olson said. "I like to laugh."

That has led him to turn story problems into mini pieces of drama.

"Mr. Olson does like these weird voices when he's doing story problems," said sixth-grader Serenity Holmes, with different voices for the characters.

These teachers expect the best.

"Mathematically speaking, if you're not putting them in complex, high-level mathematical situations, you can't expect them to perform in complex, high-level mathematical situations," Olson said.

He tells his math students from the outset that it will be a challenge.

"I want you to fail everyday," Olson said. "I could teach you a five-minute lesson and give you a worksheet, and you'll remember none of it. But if you're challenged and you're thinking enough that you're actually failing, making mistakes, and then correcting and moving forward, now you're going somewhere."

"You're failing in the short-term to gain understanding."

But he's there with them along the way.

"We get to work on stuff that is harder, challenging," said sixth-grader Jacob Hursh. "They always show us how to do it" and are there to help.

As the year progresses, students will offer up answers and even dissect their wrong answers in front of classmates. It comes, Olson said, from buying in, turning up their efforts and not being afraid to fail.

"I think even more the essence of what they're doing in the classroom is they're showing and demonstrating, fostering that there is joy in learning," Krieg said. "And you can feel that ... that any child, they help every kid attain that."

The challenge is spreading.

Olson was instrumental in developing a seventh-grade accelerated math course. This year's students are giving the eighth-graders a run for their money, winning some of the weekly challenges set up by their teacher. When they do, their cheers ring down the hall.

"It's a team, it's not just individual," Krieg said. "So you can work individually, but there's also this community-based feeling that you can work as a whole block or you can work as a whole grade and I just, I love that. It's infectious right now."

An eighth-grade accelerated course is on tap for the 2018-2019 school year and Northwestern Middle School continues to exceed expectations, according to report cards issued by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Olson is also notorious for his method of communicating with parents through weekly emails that spell out class work, homework, what is expected and ways parents can help.

"So he really provides a platform for parents to get involved," Krieg said. "When your child comes home for dinner and it's what did you do in school today, 'I don't know' isn't an option."

Olson was tapped to share his methods with other teachers in the district during staff meetings in December.

Northwestern Middle School has one more reason to celebrate. Social studies teacher Mike Ketola, who teaches seventh and eighth grade, was chosen this fall to be a member of the State Academic Standards Writing Committee for Social Studies. In that role, he will help shape proficiency standards for future students.

Cue the music.

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