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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Striking Gold with Virtual Teacher Development Sessions

Dr. Melissa Soto leads a virtual professional development session for elementary school teachers.
Dr. Melissa Soto leads a virtual workshop for elementary school teachers.

In the days after schools across California started to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, Dr. Melissa Soto was glued to her Twitter timeline. What stood out were posts by elementary school teachers showing off the packets of worksheets and bags of math tools they were sending home with students to help continue with their education amid physical distancing.

While it was heartwarming to see their dedication, the associate professor in mathematics education at San Diego State University also found the posts somewhat concerning.
“I fear that sometimes these packets of worksheets are focused on rote memorization and don’t really support kids in how they think deeply about mathematics,” Soto said. “So I wondered how we could reimagine meaningful, virtual math experiences and I wanted to find virtual manipulatives that could help.”

Manipulatives are objects that students can physically handle to make sense of mathematics. In times of normal classroom learning, these take the form of connected blocks, fraction tiles or a contraption with rows of sliding beads called Rekenreks. Since schools do not have the resources to send every student home with these tools, Soto decided to offer an online session on Zoom dedicated to making teachers aware of manipulatives that can be accessed virtually.

Soto, who along with colleagues had previously offered professional development to local instructors through the grant-funded San Diego Math Project (directed by Dr. Lisa Lamb), was not sure what kind of appeal a session offered through Zoom would even have. Typically their in-person sessions had drawn about 30 educators.

Upon first advertising the session on March 31, they reached their 30 sign-ups in the first hour. By the time Soto’s “Supporting Number Sense with Virtual Manipulatives” went live on April 7, sign-ups had swelled to 212, with registrations coming in from Chico, Stockton, even Hawaii. In all, 171 teachers logged in to participate in the one-hour workshop.

“It was mind-blowing, just the reach we were able to have,” Soto said. “I think teachers were hungry for that topic,” she added. “The idea of trying to support students' math thinking virtually is a bit scary for people and I think they wanted to know what they can do to support their students. I think it goes to show just how passionate and amazing our local teachers are in that they're going to do anything and everything they can to support their students.”

As an encore, Soto led another session — “Fractions with Virtual Manipulatives” — on April 21, which drew another 160 participants from across the state and as far away as Virginia and China. And on May 5, Soto’s next session — "Teaching Elementary Math Online with Screencasts" — saw 185 participants join. (View recordings of San Diego Math Project virtual sessions)

Other School of Teacher Education faculty members have had success with teacher professional development via Zoom as well. A session on young children’s mathematics hosted by assistant professor Dr. Nick Johnson on April 22 engaged more than 500 participants.

Soto still values the face-to-face connections fostered by working with teachers in person, and she’s eager to bring the San Diego Math Project back into the physical space once that’s possible. But the virtual sessions may continue.

“Looking at the participants and where they're coming from — even though they're from the San Diego area — it might take a long time to get here in traffic,” she said. “Coming here and back might be a three hour commitment for them. I think that this could be an extra resource to add to our offerings.”