Teacher Spotlight: Kacy Heiser and Stacie Lefler

Kacy Heiser and Stacie Lefler
Kacy Heiser and Stacie Lefler

Math in the Middle graduates Kacy Heiser (Cohort 3) and Stacie Lefler (Cohort 1) teach math for Gordon-Rushville Public Schools in the Nebraska Panhandle. Stacie teaches seventh- and eighth-grade math at the middle school, and Kacy teachers Math 1, Pre-Algebra, Algebra 2 and College Algebra at the high school. Although nearly a fourth of the students are Native Americans and more than half of the students come from low-income families (54% receive free or reduced lunches), students in Grades 7, 8 and 11 at Gordon-Rushville are scoring highly on the NeSA-M.

Data from the 2011-12 State Report Card indicate that on the NeSA-M, the percentage of students who are proficient in mathematics across the state of Nebraska are as follows: grade 7 – 67.6%, grade 8 – 61.7%, grade 11 – 55.6%. By comparison, the scores in Gordon-Rushville are grade 7 – 78.6%, grade 8 – 81.1%, grade 11 – 76.7%. These are better than the state average by 11, 19.4 and 21.1 percentage points, respectively.

We asked Kacy and Stacie what techniques they are using in their classrooms to help their students score so well.

Q: What are some particularly successful ways that you work with the minorities or low-income families in your classroom?

Kacy: I don't think I do anything specific for those students. I use my Promethean Board within my classroom daily. Students are given the opportunity to model problems on the board if they are comfortable, otherwise they can answer using the ActivExpression. I also use Precision Partners in my classroom, which allows students to work with others in the class during guided practice and individual practice. Partners are put together based not only on mathematical ability, but also on their ability to help their partner. These partners change every chapter or after a test. Students are given many opportunities to help each other within the classroom. Additionally, any student that might need intervention or extra-help can get that from me either before or after school. For some students just having a place to work on homework before school with some individual attention is very beneficial.

Stacie: I try to give all my students individual attention while they are in my room. For example, each student will have a variety of math problems checked during class to ensure that they are being successful. I am also available before and after school for additional help and will require struggling students to spend time after school when necessary. Our school also builds a math intervention class into the school day for any student who is in need of extra support.

Q: How have your practices changed over the years?

Kacy: I believe my teaching has changed in that I definitely incorporate more technology and I am more focused on the processes and concepts learned instead of trying to "drill & kill" so students learn specific rules or algorithms. With mathematics there are some algorithms that must be learned but I am trying to focus my students on becoming problem solvers using all they know instead of what specific rule they should apply. There are many ways to approach every type of mathematics problem.

Stacie: Thanks to my experience with Math in the Middle, I have become much more successful at helping students discover and develop a conceptual understanding of the math content. Additionally, I often search the internet for ideas, read books, attend seminars, and talk with other teachers. This has helped me each year to continually develop and refine my classroom procedures and management techniques as well as to find ideas about teaching strategies specific to math. I have also learned from my students that they feel more confident with their math skills and retain a greater understanding when they learn mnemonic devices as part of the lesson. We have many rhymes, songs, graphics, and even stories that we use in my classroom. Students have shared with me their appreciation for these little tricks they learned in middle school that helped them even as they moved on to high school. I have also created many posters that provide a visual representation and/or a mnemonic that accompany our lessons. Every year I encourage students to create their own. Often they will share with me their ideas and create posters for future students in my classroom.

Q: How did you help your students prepare for the NESA-M?

Kacy: For the past couple of years we have pulled all our juniors out of class for a NeSA-M Review Day. The class is split into two groups and the other high school mathematics teacher and I each work with one group for a half a day and simply review standards and concepts. We spend time on how to use the Reference Sheet, how to recognize key parts of questions and how to take the online test.

Stacie: I have spent a lot of time aligning my curriculum with the Nebraska standards. I also used the Student Instructional Tool from the Nebraska Department of Education website and tried to provide my students with many example problems similar to the ones provided. I share with my students the list of standards, and we have posters of them hanging around the room. With each lesson, we can find the poster showing which standard we are working toward. I feel that an important goal for me as a teacher is to see my students become confident with their math skills and see the practical uses and the sheer beauty of math.

Q: What are your recommendations for other teachers who are also working with minorities or low-income families?

Kacy: Every student and family is different and every school has their own culture. It is important for me to understand the support that my students have at home so I can add to that support system where needed. When students know you care, they are willing to give you everything they have.

Stacie: I believe all students can have success. I try to always show my enthusiasm for the lessons and show that math and teaching is something I love and have fun doing. When I’m excited and energized they get excited and energized also. I hope to have as much student engagement as possible. We do lots of practice and use active participation with strategies such as pair-share, choral response, and student marker boards. With lots of practice and constant checking for progress, I hope to see students feel confident and believe themselves that they understand and are having success before leaving the classroom.

Q: What are some things that have helped you develop as a teacher?

Kacy: The main thing is simply experience and being willing to accept change and challenges. My experiences in Math in the Middle were a huge eye-opener for me in the way that I was currently teaching and how I could change to make myself better and in turn help my students to learn and understand mathematics better. I have been blessed with a great administration that has helped me to grow and become a better teacher by allowing me to try new things within my classroom.

Stacie: Math in the Middle was an incredible experience that I am so proud to have been part of. The knowledge I gained about math and education has made me a better teacher for my students. Additionally, I frequently talk with other teachers and gain insight from their perspective and practices that have worked for them. I search the Internet and read books about education for ideas I can use to teach math and help my classroom run as smoothly as possible.

Q: Do you remember any of your favorite teachers? How did they inspire you?

Kacy: I have two teachers that come to mind and they were probably the hardest working teachers I have ever met. They never gave up on any student but they also made us WORK and work HARD.

Stacie: I remember a teacher from my middle school years. She taught social studies and did a beautiful job of bringing the history alive with her storytelling skills. I know she helped to inspire me to use poems and stories to help my students have a memorable experience. I was also inspired by the instructors and classmates I met through Math in the Middle. I can vividly remember a time during Math in the Middle at UNL when our instructor Jim Lewis became excited about a particular math problem we were working on. He was in front of our class and said that sometimes the motivation to understand a math problem can be purely because the problem is fascinating. I hope that I show that that kind of excitement and love of math in my classroom and that it also transfers to my students.

Q: What do you like to work on outside of teaching?

Kacy: Outside of teaching I love to spend time with my family either camping, golfing or simply just being together. I also am always looking for things to improve my teaching. I love to read about things that work for other teachers and see if I can adapt it to work with my students.

Stacie: In my free time I enjoy being with my husband and 4-year-old son. We enjoy camping and fishing. I also like to garden and read.

Q: What is your favorite thing about Nebraska?

Kacy: I love the family feel of Nebraska. No matter where you live it seems that everyone is part of one big Nebraska family.

Stacie: Nebraska is a wonderful place to live. I grew up in the small town of Ponca and later lived in Lincoln while I attended and graduated from UNL. I taught at Mickle Middle School in Lincoln for a year before marrying my husband and moving to Gordon. Everywhere I have been in Nebraska has always felt like home. There is a sense of community wherever you go - whether in a larger city or a small town.