Penn GSE’s pilot ABCS elective builds new math friendships and curriculum along the way

June 7, 2024

On a particularly sunny day in May 2024, the already light and bright Samuel Powel Elementary School Library was imbued with excitement and laughter after being transformed for a very special engagement — a math festival celebrating the culmination of Penn GSE’s pilot elective: Math Tutoring in an Elementary School.

Over the course of a few hours, three classrooms of exuberant first graders visited stations run by the undergraduate and Penn GSE graduate students enrolled in the inaugural course. Tables were set up for kids to color maps, count steps, and play, among other games, “Apple Picking,” “Tile with a Smile,” and “Domino Dissection.” All incorporate strategic thinking, basic number sense, and math fluency within engaging games or puzzles.

The instant reviews of the math festival were raves. One student unknowingly summed up the central goal of the day when they exclaimed, “How is that math? It’s too fun!”

The Math Tutoring in an Elementary School course was co-taught by instructors Joy Anderson Davis, who serves as a senior instructional coach for the Penn Literacy Network at Penn GSE, and Caroline B. Ebby, an adjunct professor at Penn GSE who is also a senior researcher at CPRE and the director of the Responsive Math Teaching Project (RMT).

The academically based community service (ABCS) elective is supported by the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships and is open to Penn undergraduate and graduate students. Its purpose is to redefine traditional tutoring by designing its curriculum and approach.

“Tutors are rarely taught or trained. It’s a different type of learning and requires its own curriculum,” explained Ebby, who along with Davis had been considering and organizing the elective course for years. “Being a successful college or graduate student isn’t enough. We need to help tutors learn how to support young students’ understanding of math so that they are truly facilitating learning, rather than just leading learners to the right answer.”

During the Spring 2024 semester, Penn’s students traveled twice weekly to West Philadelphia’s Powel Elementary School and provided one-on-one tutoring to first graders needing additional support in math literacy and fluency.

Just don’t call the Penn students “tutors.” Their Powel counterparts preferred the less formal moniker “math friends.”

The elective provided an opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of urban education while the first-grade students’ mathematical mindsets were sparked to understand and appreciate foundational mathematical concepts. Together, the pairs of math friends gained confidence and embraced the idea that mistakes are an essential part of students’ learning processes.

As a part of their coursework, Penn students wrote and turned in weekly journals that documented their personal experiences, and challenges with their math friends. Davis and Ebby would capitalize on concepts expressed in real time by creating simulations, enacted by roleplaying in a fishbowl setting, to workshop solutions.

More often than not, Penn students faced their own challenging math journeys while tutoring and found closure by helping students master concepts they struggled to grasp themselves.

When asked why first graders, Davis — who was the 2023 recipient of Penn GSE's Educator of the Year Award — emphasized the importance of raising the rigor and building strong mathematical foundations at an early age.

“The earlier we teach children that math is more than numbers and memorization,” Davis explained, “the easier it will be to build thinking and problem-solving skills they will apply later. Competence with early math concepts has been shown to predict later school academic success through high school, even more so than early literacy or executive functioning skills.”

As a final course project, Penn students created personal engagement plans so their families could continue to support their students and, ideally, instill a shared passion for math within the home. At the end of the event the portable Math Festival games, which can also be found online, were packed up in their individual plastic bins, ready to be taken to their next school.

All agreed that by the end of the Spring 2024 semester, Davis and Ebby’s Math Tutoring in an Elementary School pilot did more than ignite a partnership; it was a transformative experience.

One Penn student summarized the sentiment when saying, “I had a unique opportunity to not only enhance my own tutoring skills but also support students in their journey towards mathematical proficiency. I had to learn to lead. Not do. Which helped me discover far more about myself than I expected.”

The course is bound to adapt and grow as it empowers young minds to excel in the world of mathematics and beyond.

Learn more on the Netter Center’s ABCS course listings and find out more about what Penn GSE is doing across Philadelphia by exploring our interactive heat map of programming.