Quality Teaching Needs Quality Support

Our guest authors today are Ulana Ainsworth, a special education teacher at Curtis Guild Elementary School in Boston, MA and Jodie Olivo, a fifth grade teacher at Nathanael Greene Elementary School in Pawtucket, RI.

Among the most underserved populations in education are teachers themselves. Until now, most applications of technology in the schools have focused on students. Student access is critical, but leaving out the most critical person in the room –the teacher –is a huge mistake. Working with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and other education leaders, IBM committed to changing that this fall with the launch of Teacher Advisor With Watson, a totally free online tool that uses IBM’s innovative artificial intelligence technology. IBM’s Teacher Advisor enables teachers to deepen their knowledge of key math concepts, access high-quality vetted math lessons and acclaimed teaching strategies, along with annotated video all integrated together, giving teachers the unique ability to tailor those lessons to meet their individual classroom needs.

IBM technologists worked directly with teachers and other education experts over a two-year period to develop this new tool. TeacherAdvisor.org will help strengthen teachers’ ability to instruct students with varying degrees of preparation in elementary school math – the gateway to learning more complex concepts. The technology has been trained by some of the nation’s leading math experts. And with more training and teacher more use by teachers, Teacher Advisor will continue to learn and improve.

Providing quality resources for teachers is not new for the AFT. The AFT’s ShareMyLesson.com, with 1.2 million members, provides access to resources and lesson plans in every PreK-12 subject area. These resources are crowdsourced, added by individual teachers and organizational partners in a way that allows teachers to find, share, collaborate and help curate the resources that they feel are most useful for helping their students.

Building on efforts to provide educators with quality math material, Teacher Advisor integrates top teaching strategies, lesson plans, and annotated video for the K-5 math teacher. The tool uses cognitive technology that enables teachers to get targeted recommendations while planning a lesson, understanding a concept in-depth or learning specific teaching strategies.

Both of us are elementary teachers and AFT-members, and we were among the more than 1,000 beta testers of Teacher Advisor With Watson. We’ve been using the version 1.0 release of the tool, which is now available to all. Here are our impressions.

Ulana Ainsworth, Special Education Teacher at Curtis Guild Elementary School, Boston, MA: Like most of my students on the first day of school, I’m excited, eager to learn new things and a little bit anxious. This year, also like most of my students, I am moved to a new grade level. After teaching kindergarteners with learning disabilities for the past four years, I switched to educating fourth and fifth graders from diverse backgrounds and with a range of learning styles.

The transition was challenging, and pushed me to get up to speed fast on grade level subjects I had to teach for the first time –especially elementary math. If there’s one thing I have learned in my teaching career, it’s that an educator must find a way to be flexible with the little amount of time they are given. What I love about teaching is helping students work through their struggles, because I had my own struggles with learning.

I was worried that having to transition from teaching basic numbers to helping students understand things such as fractions would be difficult and overwhelming. But the new, free Teacher Advisor With Watson tool has helped me make this adjustment. It’s simple, easy to use and saved me a ton of time.

I initially used the tool to understand fourth and fifth grade math academic standards. When students enter a grade level, some might be above, some might be behind and some might be right in the middle. That’s the trickiest part of teaching –understanding where kids are coming from and helping them move forward.

TeacherAdvisor.org generates tons of activities, lessons and strategies to fit a range of student abilities and learning styles. I can type in whatever I’m looking for and it instantly brings up targeted resources for me to use to teach that exact concept. And the quality of the content is strong. Typically, it’s hard to do a ton of research and make sure your lessons are expansive enough for all students to comprehend, but Watson generates prerequisites for instruction and shows extensive activities and videos to make the classroom more interactive.

For example, equivalent fractions are a major concept in fourth grade mathematics. If I’m teaching that concept throughout a unit and I need to scale back and figure out what the pre-requisite standard is for equivalent fractions, I’m able to look at that efficiently through Teacher Advisor.

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a teacher is the need to develop lessons that can be adapted to help get my students through a year of growth. The part that I like most about Teacher Advisor With Watson is that you can differentiate your lessons. I can break apart the standard, the content or the lesson to make sure I’m serving the needs of each and every child in my classroom. I can find fun, engaging methods to help students who may initially have trouble comprehending a lesson. It’s amazing that you can also search for things by concept and easily move across grade levels, making the tool useful for new and veteran teachers.

There are 24 hours in the day, but you only have six with your students. Before Teacher Advisor With Watson, I spent so much of my nights and weekends searching online for lesson plans or checking various sources across different websites. Instead of going through all of that work, now I just go to Watson, type in the math concept I’m looking for, and I have complete, credible resources at my fingertips.

Now that I’m using this tool, I can’t imagine going back to teaching without it. It has given me a lot of ideas about what I can use in my classroom. It has streamlined a process for me that used to take hours down to minutes because of the targeted resources.

Jodie Olivo, Fifth Grade Teacher at Nathanael Greene Elementary School, Pawtucket, RI: I grew up in Pawtucket and live in the same neighborhood as my school. I'm a second-generation teacher, and started teaching 28 years ago after being inspired by seeing how good teaching can make lifelong changes in children’s lives. The children in my school aren’t just my students. They and their families are my neighbors, and I have a personal commitment to being the best teacher I can for them.

Teaching has changed a lot over the years, so when it comes to 21st century learning, both teachers and students can benefit from innovative approaches to education. That’s why I was excited to be asked to beta test Teacher Advisor With Watson two years ago, why I’ve been involved in shaping and refining the tool, and why I’ve been using it since its official launch in September.

Although I teach a fifth-grade class, my students’ competencies in reading and math range from “first grade” to “eighth grade.” Teacher Advisor helps me close the gaps between what my students know and what I need to teach them, giving me subject-matter insights from above and below a particular student’s competency level. For example, if one of my fifth-grade students has third-grade math skills, I can use Watson to find out which fundamentals from second grade this particular student may be missing. Then I can take the student through the fourth-grade level, and then prepare them for the fifth-grade level and beyond because the tool lays out the sequential building blocks of the subject matter. Being able to do this with math is crucial because so much math understanding is cumulative, and because understanding math is so important to overall academic performance.

It’s extremely helpful to have one website that has everything you need in one place, and to be able to trust the information because it’s been provided and vetted by experts. The format tour of the site is very helpful, the subject-matter guides are clearly thought out by people who know the profession, and the site has great search options –including the ability to search for certain standards. In addition, the tool provides different strategies and resource sections with helpful videos. It can help you reinforce your mathematics subject-matter expertise, give you meaningful background information on how to teach a particular lesson, or sometimes just reassure you that you’re on the right track.

Teacher Advisor With Watson also incorporates some of the most trusted sources available for lesson plans and subject-matter support. In one convenient place, I can get recommendations for sequential lesson plans –both forwards and backwards. That ability makes the tool extremely valuable to teachers who change grade levels, as well as for special education teachers with students facing a variety of learning challenges. And because Watson saves your search inquiries, it’s quick and easy to get back to research when you only have a few minutes at a time.

Overall, I think Teacher Advisor is a valuable, quick, convenient and trustworthy resource for anyone in front of the classroom. And I’m excited that the tool will get even better as more teachers use it.

To learn more about this resource or sign up for free to use Teacher Advisor With Watson, go to TeacherAdvisor.org.

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