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The Art of Teaching Reading and Arithmetic

As a student at St. Thomas, Sandra Pulles ’11 volunteered at Anishinabe Academy through the Tutor Mentor program. She worked with a kindergarten teacher, helping with classroom activities and reading groups. Little did she know that, as a graduate student years later, she would return to that same school to continue learning how to educate students.

Pulles  now a fourth-year student in the educational psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota  has a long track record of working with students, primarily elementary-aged. Such work is aimed at improving their math and reading skills so they’re at, or closer to, their expected grade level. This is done through interventions, which provide students with the skills they need to understand math and read better.

Pulles’ work is important to her because she knows how valuable an education is.

“My grandparents were born in Puerto Rico and the highest education that any of them received was my paternal grandfather, who completed fifth grade,” Pulles said. “My parents, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, always taught me to value my education, and I was always inspired to help other students become as academically successful as possible. I know education is a privilege that could be used as a stepping stone to advance socially and economically.”

Where it all started

Pulles graduated with a degree in psychology from St. Thomas and said two experiences in particular were formative: being part of the McNair Scholar Program (which is now the Excel! Research Scholars) and traveling with a J-Term class to Hawaii.

“St. Thomas is where it all started for me,” Pulles said. “The McNair program really opened up opportunities for me to do research, travel nationally and internationally. It helped develop my confidence. It was my first time doing big research. I always remember, ‘Here’s where I started.’”

As part of McNair, Pulles worked with professor Ann Masten of the University of Minnesota to study homeless and highly mobile children, examining their at-risk factors for attaining an education.

“Certain skills can help them be more successful in school,” Pulles said. “I got lots of hands-on experience, which helped me a lot to see what I wanted to do.”

Through a communications course that focused on volunteering and learning about Hawaiian culture, Pulles visited and tutored at a school in Hawaii, which included helping students prepare a cultural project on a native duck.

“It was very meaningful to me,” Pulles said. “I really valued working with students who were identified as being at-risk for different factors, knowing that I can make a difference.”

Making sure no one slips through the cracks

At the University of Minnesota, Pulles’ adviser, Dr. Matthew Burns (now at the University of Missouri), introduced her to math and reading interventions at schools. As part of a research assistantship Pulles was placed back at Anishinabe, where she looked at the reading skills of students in grades K-3. For reading, the intervention process is mostly individualized, Pulles said; she works in groups of two or three to see what each student needs.

“We look at what type of errors students make when reading and implement an evidence-based intervention,” Pulles said. “It might be a fluency intervention for readers who are not making a lot of errors when reading, but are just slow. For fluency, we might have students re-read a similar passage and time them.”

Success is measured through benchmarks; students should be in line with school-created benchmarks, or benchmarks set by national organizations such as the Minnesota Reading Corps, which is part of AmeriCorps and provides trained literacy tutors to children age 3 through grade three.

Pulles noticed that students also needed math help; for her master’s thesis she implemented a math intervention for the middle school students in Anishinabe.

Her thesis focused on a three-piece intervention:

  • Doing a manipulative activity with a physical object, such as moving blocks, chips or coins.
  • Drawing pictures to solve a problem. “If you’re working on the multiplication problem of 3×2,” Pulles said, “You might draw three large objects with two dots in the center to represent the problem.”
  • Moving away from the representations so students can solve problems without having to draw it out each time.

“This process allows students to develop the conceptual understanding to know what the problem means, besides the steps,” Pulles said.

While Pulles has worked with college athletes and is currently teaching at the U of M, the majority of her work has been with younger children (she estimates she’s been to 20 schools in the metro area.) She said it’s important to get students back on track as early as possible.

“So many students may not have the opportunity to be successful in school, whether for reasons at home or because they don’t have the economic advantages of some other students,” Pulles said. “They could slip through the cracks, but they could be future doctors or educators or engineers. If you catch those students early, do the intervention early, it could mean not being placed in special education, therefore keeping the students stay in the mainstream classroom.”

Developing new interventions

Pulles just finished defending her oral prelims, which also focused on math interventions. She studied 18 different interventions to see which had all five strands for math proficiency, as recognized by the National Research Council in 2001. Her conclusion: none.

“This suggests we need to develop better academic interventions if we want to improve math proficiency across the research,” Pulles said.

She’s still in the early stages, but Pulles is considering doing math intervention study for her dissertation.

On top of her work at the U of M, Pulles also joined the Minnesota Math Corps in January. A large chunk of her experience has been working with a task force to realign the Minnesota Math Corps’ curriculum to align with Minnesota state math standards, which are more rigorous than the typically used Common Core.

“We had to create an intervention for each benchmark, which was a big task in itself,” Pulles said.. The interventions are to help with developing a conceptual understanding and improving the overall accuracy of a particular math skill.”

The first school year these new interventions are being used is 2014-2015.

Overall, Pulles said the most rewarding part of her work is seeing students succeed where others might have given up. She cited one class in particular: “It was halfway through the year and the students were so far behind in reading. We implemented a class-wide reading intervention because the majority of the class was below where they should have been at that point in the year. . It ended up reducing the number of students who were below benchmark. It’s nice going into the school, training teachers to do an intervention and seeing a difference.”