Values Guide New Math Program in the Lower School

By Carolyn Ronco
Bridges Math

Gone are the days of memorizing math facts and agonizing over timed math tests.

It has been said that when your values are clear, making decisions become easier. For several years, Lower School teachers at Durham Academy have been researching and defining our values for math education for our students. Our teachers, led by math specialist Nataki McClain, have attended national conferences, networked with math educators across the country, read professional books and journals, and visited schools that share similar values. From this work, Lower School teachers — through conversations and collaboration — have identified a math curriculum that best reflects what we believe to be optimal teaching practices for math instruction in our Lower School. These values include honoring student thinking, using social interaction for cognitive growth and offering time for active learning.

In August, teachers in all 16 Lower School classrooms began using the Bridges in Mathematics curriculum published by The Math Learning Center. The results have been impressive. Teachers are reporting flexibility in student thinking; students are reporting high engagement; and parents are reporting that they can see the thoughtful and intentional building of math skills from the first few weeks of school until now.

This lesson format keeps students actively involved in math lessons that take place for 60 minutes each day. Each part of the math lesson is short, highly engaging and provides opportunities for students to discuss and articulate the strategies they are employing to solve math problems.

Bridges utilizes a format for learning math that most adults did not experience when they were in elementary school. Gone are the days of memorizing algorithms that were difficult to follow, and gone are timed math facts tests that were stressful and discouraging. Now, students use a variety of concrete math models such as number racks, bundles and sticks, number lines, and base 10 areas and pieces to find solutions to interesting math problems. Often the story or word problem comes first in the lesson, allowing students to discover a plan for solving the problem before learning an algorithm.

The Bridges curriculum supports the Eight Mathematical Practice Standards identified in math education research that children are expected to achieve in a rigorous academic environment. These practices transcend grade levels — they are as relevant in a first-grade classroom as they are in a 10th-grade classroom. These practices also can be applied and exercised across disciplines: science, literacy, the arts and foreign language.

Eight Mathematical Practice Standards

  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  4. Model with mathematics.
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
  6. Attend to precision.
  7. Look for and make use of structure.
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Connecting to home is also an important piece of the Bridges curriculum. Our Lower School teachers want to be sure that parents understand the important work our students are doing in the classroom and know how to support their children in their studies. Bridges provides a parent letter at the beginning of each math unit that articulates the goals and strategies for the upcoming lessons.

There are many aspects to the Bridges math curriculum that our teachers love, but building a math community is one of our favorites. Learning from each other, solving problems together and respecting the thinking of our classmates teach lifelong lessons that reach far beyond the Lower
School classroom.

Bridges Math Lessons Follow a Particular Structure

Problems and Investigations

Teachers pose a problem to the whole class, which is followed by independent thinking and a time to reconvene so students can share the strategies they used to solve the problem. This is also a time when teachers can model mathematical thinking and organized reporting.

Work Places

As defined by Bridges, “Work Places are engaging, developmentally appropriate math stations that offer ongoing practice with key skills. Many Work Places are partner games, but some are independent activities or more open-ended partner work.” Work Places provide times for teachers to work with students independently or in small groups to differentiate instruction for students, whether for enrichment or for support.


From given prompts, teachers require students to write an answer that demonstrates their mathematical thinking. Teachers also take qualitative notes about how students work, especially during Work Places, and make lesson changes accordingly.

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