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Three Portage High School math teachers agreed: College Preparatory Mathematics is top-notch.

CPM takes students out of a traditional lecture setting and puts them in small groups for problem-solving, and that’s “where the magic happens,” said Dave Schmitz.

“Kids will retain these skills,” said Susan Cadwell.

Its effectiveness for students, who are asked to explain concepts to their partners, boiled down to one key factor for Ryan Hansen: “If you can teach it, you know it.”

Schmitz, Cadwell and Hansen gave a presentation for school board members Monday on the progress of CPM, in its third year at PHS. Each offered two thumbs up.

CPM has been implemented in phases at PHS and is now taught in all the core math classes. CPM is underway at the middle-school level, too, Schmitz noted, meaning teachers can expect “consistency” from students familiar with CPM for years to come.

Schmitz, who teaches Algebra II, is in his 29th year in the Portage Community School District and called this, his first year of CPM, “one of the most exciting years” of his career.

“It really engages them and challenges them in a positive manner,” Schmitz said. “One of the advantages is that topics spiral — we hit on the same topics over and over throughout the whole year, so it’s not like in years past where you cover a topic and after that chapter you’d be done. (A topic) comes back around over and over, and helps their retention level.”

Hot potato

CPM offers a multitude of activities to keep kids engaged, Schmitz said.

“There’s like 40 things you can do.”

One is ‘hot potato’ — the teacher gives a group of students a problem, a piece of paper, and each student does one step of the problem and passes it on.

“They can do the next step or correct the previous step if they think it’s wrong,” Schmitz said. “It just keeps going around until they feel they have it.”

Another activity is pairs-check, where students work with their “elbow partner” – whoever’s next to them – and work on two problems. The first person does the explaining, the other the writing.

“So a person has to write whatever they tell them,” Schmitz said, “and if they disagree, he can only tell them when they’re done. For the second problem, they switch roles.”

Pairs-check, in asking students to explain what they know, gets to what Schmitz calls the “signature moment” for students.

“That’s when you know if they really understand the material.”

Bye-bye comfort zone

Hansen, who teaches pre-calculus, compared the effect of CPM to an experience he had as a young hunter. One day the older members of his hunting group decided the young guys had to do the skinning. Despite having seen the procedure plenty of times, Hansen said he had “no idea until I did it.”

“That’s what CPM does,” Hansen told board members. “Now they’re exposed.”

There’s no cookie-cutter recipe to success, the three teachers agreed, and each teacher provides a different twist than another. The teachers “want kids to struggle a bit,” Schmitz said. “It’s tempting to show them, but they gain a deeper level of understanding when they struggle.”

“Is it challenging? Yes, and it gets kids out of their comfort zone,” Hansen said. “Is it perfect? No. But the math department has been together for 15 to 20 years” and works together through issues.

One issue noted by Cadwell for last school year was the lack of a “concrete objective.” Cadwell, who teaches geometry, is looking for improvement in the completion of homework assignments, noting only about 60 of 113 had turned in homework recently.

Cadwell noted that, for the most part, the good students “will always be good students” and the “strugglers” will continue to need help, regardless of CPM.

But “at least they’re talking about math” instead of zoning out, she said.

Another positive sign for Cadwell is on test days: “They bring it on test days. They all turn it in together.”

Here to stay

Director of Curriculum Peter Hibner noted a past visit to a DeForest classroom that was using CPM, where he found himself thinking: “This is what a classroom should look like.”

A DeForest teacher told Hibner, “If we ever went away from this, I’d leave” the district. Pardeeville has been using CPM since 2001, Hibner said, seeing the same success Portage is having. Baraboo uses it in middle school, but not high school.

District Administrator Charles Poches asked the math teachers if they’ve heard any issues about CPM from parents, and Schmitz pointed out, with a laugh, they sometimes hear they’re “not teaching.”

For teachers in a traditional setting, Schmitz said, assessing students is typically limited to one-on-one situations. But in group settings they assess multiple kids at once.

“You still use direct instruction if you feel the kids need it. The roles of teachers have changed – (we’re) basically monitoring their work, asking questions as you move from group to group.”

Students in CPM still have to “meet basic needs,” Schmitz said, completing their homework and showing their work in writing, but they can now “reach higher than ever before.”

“The main thing is to get them thinking about math, thinking on a higher level,” Schmitz said. “You learn by doing.”

Portage Daily Register reporter