Darien will be teaching math a little differently from now on.

At one of the first Board of Education meetings of the year, members discussed de-spiraling, or changing, the elementary school math program and changing the math curriculum.

The idea was greeted with a bit of hesitation from parents and the board, but after an informational session at Tuesday night's meeting, teaching methods have started to change, and supplemental work has been added.

Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent for elementary education, gave an update on the math curriculum for the elementary school levels and explained that while the content hasn't changed, the way it's being taught and reinforced has.

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"We've talked about this before, but we really haven't done a lot of work on changing the content that we teach. We're working more on the process we use to get children to learn mathematics," Pandolfo said.

With the help of several people, Pandolfo and Stephanie Furman, mathematics coordinator, created pacing guides for kindergarten through fifth grade to "focus content children need to work with and focus on key areas in greater depth."

For example, teachers are using more Context for Learning Math units of study, which act as a supplement to the curriculum.

"(The units) foster situations that provide deeper conceptual understanding of essential mathematical ideas, strategies and models," Pandolfo said, adding that it's difficult for adults to understand because it's not how they learned math.

"It's difficult because if you didn't learn it this way, it's not easy to figure out. We were never really asked why growing up, we just had to have the right answer," Pandolfo said.

A third supplement that's been added this year is DreamBox, a software program that provides mathematical activities for students.

"As students answer questions, the program reads not only their response, but kind of how they respond and it adjusts up or down in terms of difficulty accordingly," Pandolfo said, adding that it also helps provide feedback for teachers concerning the students' learning process.

"We just feel like it's an addition to what we're already doing that gives children more opportunities to practice their mathematics skills," Pandolfo said.

Furman explained some of the techniques that the teachers themselves were using, the first of which was warm-up strings. With warm-up strings, the students are given a series of math problems starting with basic problems such as 30 plus 50, but before they get the right answer they have to go to the number line, which is a line of numbers consisting of what numbers are used in the problem. So, for example, there would be the number 30, and the number 80, with several numbers in between to help children learn the relationship between the numbers.

"Students are taught to look for the relationships that help them solve the problems. It gets them more flexible with numbers and gets numeracy in their head," Furman said.

Furman also said they're improving upon the CFLM units of study Pandolfo had mentioned.

"We provide a real life context for examining math concepts, and group work is adjusted to ability levels," Furman said.

Teachers confer with the students while they work, and then after the work's completed the students have a "math congress" in which the they discuss the work completed. After the congress, the students participate in a "gallery" where posters are hung throughout the room and students post comments on each other's work.

"Some examples might be `I understood your strategy, that was really interesting,' or `I understood your strategy up until this point, can you explain your thinking?' They're critiquing the thinking of others," Furman said.

Clara Sartori, vice chairman of the board, questioned whether or not this change in pace would affect the middle school curriculum since students would have a different understanding by the time they started.

Pandolfo explained that what the children learn in elementary is part of the common core of mathematics, so "[the students] will have to do similar things at the middle and high school."

Darien resident Susan Vogel expressed concerned that students were being grouped by ability, which may lead to a whole host of other issues regarding student self-esteem and one student's intelligence being higher than the other.

Furman and Pandolfo both assured Vogel that the children are unaware.

"During the math congress and the gallery all of the students are grouped together, so it's not like we're having them separated and walking around in ability groups all the time," Furman said.

Pandolfo agreed.

"I can see where you're coming from, I truly can. But I've been to several of these math sessions and I've never gotten that feeling from the classrooms. Sometimes students may go to the students who had the harder math problem and ask questions about it," Pandolfo said.

mdavis@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4407; http://twitter.com/megdariennews