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New Canaan's High-Performing Math Coach

Kristine Woleck is boosting mathematics education in New Canaan classrooms and around the country with a national fellowship and a new book.

You could say Kristine Woleck is an over-achiever.

Woleck has been a mathematics educator in the New Canaan public schools for the last eight years—first as the resource teacher at South School starting in 2002 and then just two years later becoming the k-5 mathematics coordinator for the whole district. She's recently had the ear of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and she's just had her first book published. She's also the mother of two young children.

But you could also argue that Woleck fits right in here in New Canaan, a district that sets the bar high in general. Elementary and middle school scores on the Connecticut Mastery Tests routinely put New Canaan in the state top ten and that carries through the senior year of high school when those students take the SAT—in 2008 NCHS had the best scores in the state on the math portion.

As a "math coach", it's Woleck's job in part to keep that trend going. But she doesn't do what you might expect from a coach. She does not sit with children and drill them on their long division steps or times tables, instead, she coaches the teachers.

"The teachers bring their knowledge of each child, while I can bring a math lens," Woleck said.

Math coaching is an evolving discipline that requires finely-tuned diplomatic skills as well as a deep understanding of how young children learn mathematical concepts, a process that to this day is itself not completely understood. The specialized field of math coaching has developed as it's been recognized that many teachers have an inadequate background in teaching math that derives from their own poor instruction as youngsters.

Woleck is often busy in New Canaan classrooms gathering video clips of "powerful" teaching.

In one example that Woleck describes in her new book for educators, "Moments in Mathematics Coaching", a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating the concept of patterns. The teacher arranged a set of white and colored blocks in two "trains"—one all-white, and one following an "AB" pattern of white, color, white, color. As the children dispersed to practice the lesson by arranging cubes in patterns, Woleck recounts in the book, the many variations the children came up with gave clues into their thinking processes. After the children had left for art class, Woleck shared her observations with the teacher to strengthen the teacher's understanding of how her instruction had been perceived by the children.

"There were moments in the meeting that pushed [the teacher] to reflect on the lesson herself," Woleck explained in her writing, a goal of the coaching protocols.

As a child development major at Tufts, Woleck's interest in young children's development grew into a passion. She became fascinated in how young children develop their ability to deal with complex ideas.

As she taught elementary school and then pursued a master's program in math leadership at the Bank Street College of Education in New York, Woleck found herself learning a whole new way to conceptualize mathematical notions.

"I was really getting a new education myself," she said.

Woleck's math leadership gifts and unusual dedication to her profession won her a place this past year as one of 10 teachers across the country selected to serve a one-year fellowship with the U.S. Department of Education.

The fellowships are intended to give teachers a voice in policy decisions at the top level—the education secretary's office. Over the course of the year, Woleck has participated in telephone conference calls with Secretary Duncan and his staff as well as in meetings in Washington, D.C.

As the only fellow from New England, she has traveled within the region to participate in community forums to hear what others have to say about federal educational policy and share their ideas as a "communications liaison" with the Department of Education.

In March, she made a presentation to the New Canaan Board of Education about changes to the "No Child Left Behind" law as drafted by the Department of Education.

"There are many, many good pieces about the draft," she said. "The important thing will be implementation at the state and local levels."

Woleck said the draft is a departure from the existing legislation in that it imposes rigorous standards on all students, looks at the whole child within the school climate, encourages rewarding of success rather than simply punishing failure, considers social and emotional growth and maintains accountability by measuring growth over time rather than isolated test scores alone.

The fellowship ends in July and over the summer Woleck will prepare a special report for the New Canaan Board of Education.

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